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Film

German comedy 'Toni Erdmann' has all of Cannes laughing

This year's Cannes crowd-pleaser is a German comedy from director Maren Ade about the strained relationship between a hippie father and his workaholic daughter. The critics love it, but will it secure the Golden Palm?

After 'The Forest for the Trees' (2003) and 'Everyone Else' (2009) - two tightly controlled dramas dissecting personal relationships and social mores - German director Maren Ade goes for broke with "Toni Erdmann," a riotous comedy that turns the story of estranged, and mutually depressive, father and daughter into a human, hilarious masterpiece.

There were flashes of Ade's comedic talent in her two previous films, but nothing to prepare you for 'Toni Erdmann,' which slaloms smoothly from the rude and crude (scenes involving funny costumes, whoopee cushions and one with petit fours put to an indecent use better not discussed here), to blisteringly accurate depictions of sexism in the workplace to often tender observations of how families really do (and more often don't) communicate. It's a film that by all standard rules of cinema shouldn't work. But it does - and gloriously so.

Festival de Cannes - Film Toni Erdmann

Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek in "Toni Erdmann"

Father-daughter conflict

The father and daughter at the heart of 'Toni Erdmann' are polar opposites. Winfried is a shaggy, shambolic music teacher who has just lost his last piano student and is about (spoiler alert!) to lose that sickly dog of his, too. Winfried has an odd, almost childlike, sense of humor. He loves playing practical jokes, putting on wigs and false teeth to prank his mailman or his colleagues. The buck-toothed Toni Erdmann, a wacky “consultant and life coach” is his favorite alter-ego.

Daughter Ines is a no-nonsense, pant-suited business executive who's spent the last year in Bucharest, advising an oil company on how best to restructure its operations (i.e. cut jobs). A short awkward visit home convinces Winfried his daughter is unhappy and, in a spontaneous, horribly misjudged move, he decides to visit her and her colleagues in Romania as Toni Erdmann. He starts playing pranks on Ines, ostensibly to get her to loosen up. It soon becomes clear, however, that he's suffering from some sort of breakdown himself and the humor is both a cry for help and a way of confronting, almost bullying, his daughter into letting him back into her life again.

Simonischek plays the sad clown

69-year-old Austrian actor Peter Simonischek, a star of German theater and TV but not that well-known on screen, is a master of switching tone, unafraid to play the Toni Erdmann scenes big, going for the laughs, before revealing the deep-rooted sadness beneath them. Ade has said the inspiration for the character came both from her own father - a tireless practical joker - and the late, great American comedian Andy Kaufmann, particularly his Tony Clifton character, a deliberately unfunny, often offensive, Vegas-style lounge singer.

Kaufman performed as Clifton, dressed in a shabby tuxedo and wearing a ridiculous black wig, dark sunglasses and drooping mustache. But the comedian always insisted Clifton was a real person, a real lounge singer he had met on tour. As Toni Erdmann, Simonischek gets the same Kaufmann-esque balance of cringe and compassion out of his performance, the sense that there's a real, and really sad and angry, person behind the clown.

Director Maren Ade in Cannes, photo: dpa

Director Maren Ade in Cannes

Hüller's fearless performance

He is matched, beat for beat, by Sandra Hüller as Ines. Since her harrowing performance in Hans-Christian Schmid's 'Requiem' in 2006 as a young epileptic submitted to the horrors of an exorcism, Hüller has proven herself to be among Germany's most talented and fearless actors. But even the harrowing exorcism scenes in that film can't have been as challenging as the climatic scene in "Toni Erdmann" where she belts out an embarrassing yet euphoric piece of karaoke, Whitney Houston's 'The Greatest Love of All.' Three whole minutes of ragged, to-hell-with-it soul bearing that is as funny as it is emotionally moving.

Running nearly three hours, 'Toni Erdmann' takes its time, a slow burn of a film that earns its huge pay off in the final hour when Ade pulls out all the stops with one massive comedic scene after another, including a naked party set-piece that is itself worth the price of admission. Along the way, Ade careful builds and deepens the story with scenes of Ines' work and sex life, depicting the casual sexism of the corporate world.

At one point a client pressures her into entertaining his trophy wife with a shopping trip. In another, she submits to a humiliating sex game involving some petit fours with her lover-cum-colleague and rival Tim. To get ahead in a man's world, Ines seems to believe that sometimes you have to, quite literally, swallow your pride. The scenes help to humanize Ines while stripping away the defenses symbolized by her worsted wool suits and sensible shoes. It makes her eventual reconciliation with Winifred both believable and earned.

Hollywood Calling Card

After the film's rapturous reception in Cannes, expect Hollywood to come calling. I wouldn't be surprised if Ade has already received offers for a remake of 'Toni Erdmann', maybe starring Bill Murray as Winfried and Lena Dunham as Ines. But while the story of father and daughter is universal, Ade grounds her film in a specifically German sensibility and culture, where people are at once buttoned-up and business-like and painfully open and emotionally bare. It's the most German film I've seen in ages. And the funniest, German or not, in a lot longer.

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