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Arts & Life

Hilarity And Hostility Converge In The Family Comedy 'Toni Erdmann'


This is FRESH AIR. The German comedy "Toni Erdmann," written and directed by Maren Ade, centers on a father who suddenly invades his daughter's life. He's a prankster, and she's a business consultant. It's shortlisted in the foreign film category for the upcoming Academy Awards and recently won prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics. David Edelstein, a member of both organizations, has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: If you wandered into a theatre showing "Toni Erdmann" knowing nothing about it, you might think you were watching a high-toned German drama by Michael Haneke or some other art house cold fish. The tone is poker-faced, even severe. You might be thrown, though, by the fact that the audience is laughing, in some cases, screaming with a mixture of embarrassment and joy.

The title character, Toni Erdmann, is not real. He's the prankster alter ego of a middle-aged schoolteacher named Winfried Conradi, who travels from Germany to Bucharest to pay a surprise visit to his daughter, Ines. He's divorced from her mother, and it's unclear what their relationship was once. But now she's plainly uncomfortable with him. Then again, she's uncomfortable in general. She's a tense, driven business consultant who's currently helping a multinational corporation justify to the public the layoffs of hundreds of poor, rural laborers. A lot of time, she's competing against her colleagues for the ear of patronizing male executives.

This is where her father comes in, or rather Toni Erdmann. Early in the film, Winfried briefly sees Ines at his ex-wife's house and evidently doesn't like what she has become. I say evidently because nothing in the movie is spelled out in advance. You're hardly prepared for Toni Erdmann, with his shaggy, dark, fright wig and fake snaggle teeth as he lumbers toward Ines and some well-dressed business honcho at a fancy reception. Certainly, Ines isn't prepared. As Toni insinuates himself into the conversation she can barely suppress the urge to flee.

The movie is long, nearly three hours, for what's essentially a sitcom. But writer-director Meran Ade's deliberate pacing makes it. If an American studio had made "Toni Erdmann," it would probably be cast with a more obvious clown, Robin Williams in his lifetime maybe. And the editing would whack you over the head. But Ade has cast Peter Simonischek, a respected dramatic actor in Germany with an inner stillness. And as Ines, Sandra Huller is so buttoned-up that it takes a while - maybe an hour - to warm up to her and see the sadness and desperation in her eyes.

The point of course is that the vulgar Toni Erdmann has arrived to sabotage Ines, or really to sabotage her life of immoral deeds and more important, humorlessness. Winfried prizes a sense of humor above all else. The movie has a decidedly liberal slant. He's the good, Bohemian patriarch coming to save his daughter from a lot of greedy capitalists, the bad patriarchs.

There is something a little creepy about the movie "Toni Erdmann." You could see it as a backlash to feminism work in the ignoble tradition of men portraying successful women as humorless and their own aggression as somehow life-affirming. But Ade doesn't sentimentalize Winfried. Practical jokes can actually conceal a lot of hostility. Winfried might well be a lost soul. Don't expect big hugs and swelling music, but what's unresolved about the movie feels right. It keeps you guessing. And those two hours and 42 minutes just fly by.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, why so many neighborhoods in schools across America remain segregated. We'll speak with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She's kept her daughter in their neighborhood public school which has remained segregated because white families have chosen to send their children elsewhere. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN SONG, "HAPPY SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.