One of the first major rifts that tend to form between parents and children tends to occur when the children become teenagers and stop wanting to be seen with the parents everywhere they go. Parents often take this personally and don’t get it but the teenagers in question do usually have reasonable reasons to do this in their minds. For one thing they’re trying to become independent and want to feel less like little children and secondly because parents have a nasty habit of not taking said teenager’s various social anxieties as seriously as the teenager does and they tend to be very bad wingmen because of it. This usually causes a bit of family discord for something like four or five years but once the kids move out tensions usually smooth over; the parents learn to give the kids space and the kids start to find the parents to be perfectly fine to visit when appropriate. But this eventual understanding probably doesn’t come to ever family and I’m sure there are plenty of people who come to dread being around their parents well into adulthood. That’s the subject of the new German comedy Toni Erdmann, which peaks in on a daughter who is still sort of embarrassed to be seen with her father and a father who gives her a lot of good reasons to feel that way.
The film begins in contemporary Germany, where we’re introduced to a man named Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher who seems to have been living a somewhat aimless life after divorcing his wife and finding he misses his grown daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) as she jet-sets around the world in her role as a consultant for oil companies. Her most recent assignment has brought her to Bucharest where she’s on the verge of a very important presentation when suddenly Winfried decides to drop by and visit. Needless to say, she’s in no mood to deal with her goofball father that weekend and as such she proves to be a less than complimentary host. The two seemingly part ways but Winfreid decides to remain in Bucharest to find some way for the two of them to reconnect, seemingly whether his daughter wants to or not.
At first the film seems to be a sort of darkly comedic take on Yasajiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, a film in which two parents try to visit their grown children in Tokyo only to be treated like an annoyance by their ungrateful kids. That’s a movie that has a rightful place in the cannon and I’m not going to argue with Ozu’s unique visual language, but I’ve always found the story to that movie to be a bit of a crotchety guilt trip. It’s a movie made by a middle aged man that whines about those “damn ungrateful kids” for having the gall to not drop everything and kiss their parents asses. There’s something similar going on in the first half of Toni Erdmann in that Ines does not have a lot of time to deal with Winfried to his disappointment, but the film does not make Winfreid into some kind of paragon of elderly wisdom either and the film does realize that he’s putting her into quite a bind by showing up unannounced and occasionally butting into her business dealings. In the second half though the film changes directions and leans more towards a strange sort of reconciliation brought along in a way that I could almost see a Hollywood comedy going, albeit in a much different way stylistically.
Toni Erdmann was directed by Maren Ade and after the film earned raves at Cannes I checked out here previous (and also well regarded) film Everyone Else and was kind of disappointed by it. That movie was certainly pretty well made but I never really connected to the film’s characters at all and was never really able to go along with their journey. I connected with the characters here a little better to a point, or at least I connected to them initially, but as the film depicts them reconciling their differences later in the film it started to lose me. So as a character study it doesn’t quite work for me. The film also seems to be trying to say something about modern globalism given the nature of Ines’ job, but this also never quite gets pressed hard enough and doesn’t quite work for me. Then of course it also wants to be something of a farce at certain points but again never really commits to this enough for it to fully work. In general it just seems like a movie that tries to do a number of things and never really pulls the trigger on any of them. I can see a pretty interesting movie somewhere in this thing, and there are certainly scenes in it that are great, but in its attempt to be all things I think it loses something.