#NYFF 2016: Toni Erdmann

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Toni Erdmann plays October 2 and October 4 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sony Classics will release the film theatrically on Christmas day. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.

One of the most potent cinematic tchotchkes of the year is a set of fake teeth. Winfried, (Peter Simonischek) the oddball patriarch at the center of German director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, keeps these teeth in his breast pocket and constantly takes them out at random times, sticking them inelegantly into his mouth and contorting it into a rictus. Over the course of its leisurely 2-hour-and-40-minute runtime, Toni Erdmann captures many awkward encounters and presents them with a winningly absurdist humor. The plot is simple enough: Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), is an ambitious businesswoman with little time for activities outside the realm of work and related schmoozing. Winfried is her opposite, a consummate practical joker who couldn’t care less about his reputation. Toni Erdmann, named for a character Winfried portrays in an attempt to become closer to his daughter, follows Winfried as he follows Ines.

As Toni, Winfried is a hulking, sleazy presence clad in a wig almost as unappealing as the fake teeth. He shows up at Ines’s office and at networking functions, and interacts with his daughter’s coworkers. He seems to be forever lurking in the background, and Ade composes many shots with an eye for visual humor, as we see Toni’s figure before Ines does and get the sense that soon enough all hell will break lose. The film might benefit from more psychological probing—for all his extroversion Winfried is weirdly enigmatic, and we know little of Ines’s mother. In a recent Times interview, Ade talked about comedy legend Andy Kaufman as an influence, and she does a fine job of translating Kaufman’s pseudo performance art discomfort to her father-daughter story.

Toni Erdmann is a study in contrasts: corporate seriousness versus free-spirited buffoonery, man versus woman, intentions versus results. In less capable hands, it could easily become a saccharine family fable or a gross-out comedy, but Ade manages to find her own strange niche, bolstered by some memorable set pieces involving a father-daughter duet and a provocative, nightmarish party. Watching Toni Erdmann can be a stressful experience, as we constantly wonder what kind of trick Winfried will pull next. It’s possible that uncomfortable humor is best in smaller doses. In one of the film’s final moments, Ines puts on the fake teeth. It’s an oddly affecting scene: father and daughter ultimately find some kind of connection through an ugly comic prop.

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