The troubled characters in Maren Ade’s films often find themselves out of place, out of sorts and nearly out of their minds. Romantic and professional relationships are bound to disappoint, while familial ties are severed quite easily. Mercury seems to be in perpetual retrograde, where no amount of goodwill or positivity can make things right.
Her 2003 debut The Forest For the Trees watches in hand-held agony as social isolation and professional disillusionment slowly destroy a bright-eyed young teacher. Everyone Else, Ade’s masterful 2009 sophomore effort, snuggles up to a German couple on holiday as they languish around waiting for their fledgling relationship to take its last gasp of breath. Both films bear witness to the anxious personal moments we don’t want others to see.
Vulnerability, or a lack thereof, plays a crucial role in Ade’s mammoth new comedy titled Toni Erdmann, which opens Friday, Jan. 27. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) has settled into a quietly subversive life playing elaborate practical jokes on strangers and colleagues alike. In the film’s opening scene, he harasses a deliveryman by going into character as his titular smooth-talking alter ego. Immediately, Ade establishes Winfried as a force of nature who improvises each second as if life itself were a stand-up routine.
But there’s a method to his madness. Winfried has spent decades educating youth, both as a piano instructor and schoolteacher, perfecting his relentless style over time to provoke inspiration through comedic self-expression. Yet all the absurd theatrics have inevitably taken a toll on his immediate family, including daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) who has spent years abroad in Bucharest working for a consulting firm. During an impromptu family gathering, the two spend some awkward moments together dancing around their obvious and growing disconnect before parting ways.
After his old dog passes away days later, Winfried spontaneously travels to Bucharest and surprises Ines, his way of reopening the lines of communication. But the hard driving professional sees the visit as a distraction from time-sensitive job responsibilities that are growing more stressful by the day. Ade has a blast forcing this odd couple into social situations where corporate formality butts heads against Winfried’s antics. Eventually, things get so rocky that Winfried goes full method, permanently inhabiting the role of Toni in order to shake Ines out of her funk.
What follows is a crackling series of extended vignettes that thrive on revealing contradiction, skewering everything from corporate greed to global outsourcing. Conversations about trivial things are merely negotiations of power in disguise. Watching Ines in her natural habitat, Winfried struggles to reconcile the compromises of character she makes both in her personal and professional life.
In forcing these two people together, Toni Erdmann seeks to expose how easily we can get conned into experiencing unfulfilled lives. Winfried’s lowbrow jokes and grotesque fake teeth combat the tide of conformity and social media boredom that has perforated Ines’ life. Even as she resists the increasingly bold performance art it has a profound impact on her psyche, ultimately leading to an epic karaoke performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” Though, the real breakthrough for Ines comes during her birthday party that also doubles as a corporate team building exercise. The surprising reveals in this insane set piece are tantamount to the work of screwball master Preston Sturges.
Unlike Ade’s previous films, Toni Erdmann shows traces of hope and contentment. While father and daughter are not close to stitching up old wounds, they’ve at least taken the first step toward empathizing with each other. Winfried’s reflective closing monologue resonates with universal wisdom about time passing, but it won’t solve anything unless Ines starts believing ”nice encounters” really exist. If the final shot is any indication, it’s unclear whether that will ever happen.