When Conan O’Brien wrote for Saturday Night Live, he created a character they never used. It was a German poet that wrote the most beautiful poems, but when he read them, they sounded scary; because he’d read them with a loud, booming voice, and a thick German accent.
When you think of comedy, Germany isn’t the first place you think of. Although, one of the best comedies I ever saw at a theatre was a German film called Maybe…Maybe Not. The entire Landmark theatre in Hillcrest (including myself), were laughing harder than I’ve ever seen an audience laugh. That was over 20 years ago, and I don’t remember seeing any German comedies since.
I was excited about this one when I read an interview with writer/director Maren Ade. This is her third movie, and she was talking about being inspired by the late American comedian and actor Andy Kaufman (Taxi) and a character he created. It was an obnoxious and bad lounge singer named Tony Clifton, who would purposely tick off the audience. The name Toni Erdmann was even a mixture of those two names (Tony and Kaufman). The premise was also something that sounded intriguing. An uptight woman in the business world, with a father that likes to play pranks at her expense.
After sitting through the almost three hour movie, it will go on my list of the most overrated movies of 2016.
The critical praise started with the Cannes Film Festival. It didn’t win awards there, and frankly, didn’t deserve to. It will be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and when American audiences see it, they’ll be baffled.
The movie starts promisingly enough when Winfred (Peter Simonischek) signs for a package. He convinces the delivery driver that it’s a bomb, and that his crazy brother ordered it. He even changes into a wig and sunglasses, pretending to be the brother.
Winfred is a music teacher. He does a performance with his students where he’s dressed in skeleton makeup, and doesn’t wash it off when he shows up at his ex-wife’s house. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is there, and they’re celebrating her birthday a bit early. It doesn’t take long to realize why his ex-wife probably left him. And as we see Ines more concerned with her cell phone and conducting business, we think maybe the prankster dad does need to add some humor and enjoyment to his daughter’s life. Yet as the movie goes on, you’re amazed that his jokes are never funny. You also wonder why his daughter keeps tolerating it. Since irritating her at home isn’t enough, he flies to Romania to dress in costumes and try to trick her colleagues. How he goes into “character” makes little sense. Often times, this means putting in fake teeth…right in front of people. Wouldn’t it make more sense if he left the room, and came back with a different appearance? You also wonder why his daughter would agree to let him attend an important dinner, where she has a business meeting with somebody she needs to reel in. Of course, the dad ruins things.
There are a few jokes that work, but they’re few and far between. Certainly the message the director wants to get across is a good one. It’s just so baffling that this film is so bad. Is it that hard to write a humorous scenario? If it is, she should hire a screenwriter and stick to merely directing.
There are a handful of things here that could’ve been explored in a more interesting fashion. The sexism from the bosses. The sad clown, who gets laughs from his pupils in school, but not from his family and friends that have grown tired of his shenanigans.
In this movie, many of the gags go nowhere. One of them involve him handcuffing himself to the daughter, and there’s no key. They drive around aimlessly.
There are long, drawn out scenes showing business meetings. They’re boring and aren’t needed to advance the narrative or tell us something we didn’t already know about her.
There are also implausible things. For example, when I go to movie screenings, my name has to be on a list. In this, he can waltz in and out of any event or hotel.
You never warm up to this character or care about him.
There are also scenarios in which he’s just sitting or standing in the background, looking dopey. You’re wondering what antics he’s going to pull, and…he just ends up staying in the background.
A few scenes seem out of place, too. One of them involve Ines singing Whitney Houston while her dad plays piano. Another has her eating a piece of cake that a lover just masturbated on. Uh, what’s with that? Did Maren Ade just channel Judd Apatow?
The two leads are fine, acting wise, but so what? This script sucks. I’d rather eat a piece of that cake than ever watch, or think about, this movie again.
It gets 1 star out of 5.