A father’s (Peter Simonischek) desperate, juvenile attempts at reaching his over-worked white collar daughter (Sandra Huller) is the subject of Toni Erdmann. Dressing up in fake teeth and a wig, the father becomes the titular character, a fictional businessman who is occasionally a life coach and occasionally a German ambassador. He follows his daughter around, sending her work life in flux during a time where securing a client is pivotal.
Toni Erdmann is a film that boasts its eccentric and well-developed characters. Through two marvelous performances, these characters are given full fledged attention. Huller’s performance, in depicting a character that in facing a challenge to her liberation both crumbles and stands resolute, is truly amazing.
The acting is crucial, as the film’s numerous and redundant detours keep it from truly being something special. The film lacks a narrative intention that it needs to justify its lengthy runtime. It meanders aimless as the title character appears to, lost in its own humorous purgatory.
Certain elongated scenes keep the film satisfyingly fresh in spite of this pacing problem, and the best ones illustrate pertinent themes of independence and gender politics.
The latter of these two also becomes reflexive in a fascinating way. Two sequences of nudity and sexuality mock a Hollywoodized view of the feminine figure, subverting the hegemony of disproportionate male gazing in cinema.
The first of these two sequences situates our protagonist in a position of almost flippant sexual superiority, the slightly smarmy male partner literally on his knees. Later, when we do see the female protagonist naked, it is not sexual in any way. Instead, it is her frustrated resignation turned into another play of mastering one’s own domain.
In this sense, the film makes clever use of convention and the deep inadequacy that is the Hollywood sex scene. Again, it is Huller and her character that shine, carrying this film to somewhere higher.
Regardless, Toni Erdmann never really reaches its full potential, its diversions almost purposefully disallowing the viewer from becoming fully immersed. Its artifice is both apparent in the film’s lack of realism and pushed under the rug by the attempt at realism found at the film’s emotional center.
Toni Erdmann: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)