TONI ERDMANN (2016, Maren Ade)
Considered in cinephile circles to be so great it might as well be 2016’s THE TREE OF LIFE, and maybe it is, but upon first viewing it strikes me as a clever, well-executed thesis on something with which I might totally disagree. What sticks with me is a heavy-handed speech late in the movie that lays Ade’s thesis bare, and it’s dropped in the middle of an epilogue that argues that we would all be better people if we could just unthaw our buttoned-down lives with wackiness, and stop working for the soulless corporations that downsize and outsource. I’m not against a good “down with capitalism!” message, but you’d probably have to find wigs and crooked fake teeth hilarious to swallow it easier.
All that said, a lot of this movie works like a charm. There are plenty of laughs big and small, culminating in the WTF house party that serves as the third-act climax. And just because I don’t think Winfried’s Toni disguise is that funny (I’m not even sure Ade does) that doesn’t mean his behavior doesn’t do just what the story needs — and that’s to soften Ines in believable ways. Hüller’s sensational performance sells that transformation, and spending three hours with this father and daughter gives us the time to buy into it.
Ade’s style (similar to EVERYONE ELSE; I haven’t seen THE FOREST FOR THE TREES) is a weird (and effective) counter-balance to the comedy: it’s almost Dardennes-ishly neorealist — no score, almost entirely handheld, everything colored and designed as naturalistic as possible. You usually see this style in a film like 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS, but this is a different kind of Romania entirely. Her script leans heavily upon the two leads, leaving the supporting cast (all of which give solid performances) to fill out skimpy roles; you wish there were a little more to the uptight American colleague, the hapless boyfriend, and the eager assistant. I do wonder if a second viewing might unpack more angles, but for now I’ll have to register a good-but-not-great assessment and move on. (Even though “The Greatest Love of All” has been stuck in my head for hours).