Someone told me that Toni Erdmann is the funniest German movie ever made, and maybe I didn’t recognize that for the low bar that it is. I’m not saying that Maren Ade’s latest film - a film beloved on the film festival circuit - isn’t funny, it’s just that it’s funny in a gentle, occasional chuckle way with a hearty belly laugh coming every 20 or so minutes. And since the movie clocks in at a hefty two hours and forty minutes, that’s a nice handful of belly laughs.
Watching Toni Erdmann I could see the Adam Sandler movie within its Germanic frame: an older doofus whose whole life is centered around mild jokes (often involving him wearing novelty teeth) has a daughter who is a type A personality. When the old guy’s dog dies he takes an extended trip to visit her in Bucharest (the legit unfunniest city I have ever visited. It’s a place that will give you seasonal affective disorder twelve months out of the year) and, while wearing funny teeth and a bad wig he sort of mildly infiltrates her work life as a business coach. You can probably figure out where this movie is headed, even as it takes nearly three hours to get there. If you think it's headed to a bunch of wacky set pieces, I have bad news for you.
The strange thing about Toni Erdmann is the way it stubbornly (Teutonically?) refuses to ever heighten the comedy. Situations never spiral out of control, they just stay very subtly uncomfortable. It’s not quite cringe comedy because it never builds to the cringe. I’ve heard people say the film is deadpan, but I think even deadpan denotes a more rigorous comedic sensibility than Maren Ade brings to this super relaxed, naturalistic movie.
In fact I found myself wondering if Toni Erdmann even is a comedy. It has funny in it, but it’s often just playing out like a drama; long scenes of the daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) at work are not funny or satirical or, frankly, all that interesting (I could cut this movie down to two hours without breaking a sweat). Even our lead, Peter Simonischek as Winfried/Toni Erdmann (that’s his comedy alter ego) pitches his performance as a sad guy who is just trying to amuse himself with jokes that maybe don’t work for anybody else but him. There's far more drama at play here than comedy.
I did like Toni Erdmann. It’s a nice sit. The characters are enjoyable enough (again, there’s too much pointless stuff with Ines at work - we get it already! - but the rest of her scenes are very good). Sometimes when I go to a comedy my lungs start to hurt from laughing too much, and Toni Erdmann certainly never put me in danger of that discomfort. I found the movie interesting on an intellectual level, as a deconstruction of a typical snobs vs slobs movie, as a real breakdown of a Hollywood comedy into its component, not all that hilarious, parts.