“Toni Erdmann” is billed in some reviews as a “German comedy.” To see those two words in the same sentence is funny in itself.

But as it’s my job to provide you, the reader, with a reason for spending some of your cash on it, I gave it a try.

I am obliged to tell you that we’re talking here about a film that is getting raves from very smart critics and is up for Best Foreign Film Oscar. I wish it luck. The clinking sound you hear is just my two cents hitting the counter.

We have German actress Sandra Huller playing Ines Conradi; the name is off-putting, but there is softness somewhere in her Teutonic controlled business personality that you will meet at the end.

Ines is a troubled, late 30s consultant working out of a towering glass business office in Bucharest. Her job seems to be softening the news for a multinational job-killing corporation that will throw 6,000 to 7,000 workers under the bus and on the street.

Into this ice-cold glass windowed world, her father appears. Father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a retired gentleman in his 70s. We learn that Winfried and Ines have been estranged for some time, and he is now back, feeling a late-life guilt twinge, ready to recreate the family structure.

Here is where the writers provide us with more German comedy. Papa Winfried is a kind of late-life gag man, given to creating a parallel universe character whom he calls “Toni Erdmann.” Toni is fond of practical jokes, appearing at family parties in various costumes and employing ancient toys like fart cushions and hand buzzers. In other words, the “drunk uncle” holiday nightmare guest.

Director and writer Maren Ade makes an attempt to give us a softer feeling toward Winfried in the opening scenes, when Winfried, an aging music teacher, loses his last teenage student.

“But if you leave, what will I do with the piano? I only bought it for you.”

And then in a greenish gray afternoon light, he finds his beloved sick dog dead in the bushes. Now that, I assume, this is the proper way for a “German comedy” to start: An old, arthritic failing music teacher loses the last student and a dog, a scene that recalls Erich von Stroheim burying Gloria Swanson’s dead monkey in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Winfried, in his calmer moments around the house, is an overweight klutz with a shaggy all-purpose mop of white hair; but his “Toni” wears a black fright wig and uses a set of joke store false teeth that he keeps in his pocket. This disguise, and his normal manic glazed eyes, resembling a drunken Steve Bannon, gives him the appearance of a Mr. Hyde who has murdered Dr. Jekyll and eaten him.

At no point in the three hours of this film did actor Simonischek, in either role, win me over. I was never touched or amused for a moment by his multiple and cringe-worthy, bizarre efforts to win back his frigid power-daughter’s love.

Throughout the film, he is nothing more than an annoyance to everyone he encounters.

In one scene, while Ines is having a cocktail break with two of her colleagues, “Toni” shuffles out of the darkness of the posh hotel bar, like the survivor of a zombie alley fight, in a black suit with his Mr. Hyde hair and protruding Jerry Lewis teeth, introducing himself in guttural tones as the “German ambassador.”

Ines, recognizing him, of course, stands there with martini in hand, simply wanting God to turn her into a pillar of salt.

Encounters like this will happen several times in the seemingly endless three-hour journey, as she attends endless business meetings, where she makes boring presentations to sexist male colleagues.

On other occasions,”Toni” hovers around the edges at posh parties, where he hands out hand-printed business cards. Does anyone in her circle consider, in these perilous times, calling the Romanian security forces?

Sandra Huller’s “Ines” is, as we meet her, a frigid new-age business woman, who, we suspect, would rather be in Philadelphia.

There are two highlights in the monotony. Brace yourself.

A scene where a bored Ines makes her erstwhile lover fornicate with a petit four before she will eat it, and a scene that concludes with an all-nude birthday party.

That’s the good news. The better news, I think, is that Jack Nicholson and Kristin Wiig are at this moment making the American version. I suspect that this choice may win me over.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.