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'Toni Erdmann' is a grown-up look at a father and daughter

Bill Murray and Kristen Wiig, it seems, tell pretty much the same story. There are plans afoot to make an American adaptation of "Toni Erdmann," the hugely praised German comedy that is the likely winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar on Feb. 26.

But Murray blew it big time, as he tells the tale. He misplaced both Wiig's feeler about the lead role as well as the screener of the German original she sent. So he, as of this writing, is not her scheduled American co-star. The story being reported now is that it will be Jack Nicholson, after 10 years of retirement.

If indeed, Nicholson is as fully capable as he was before retirement (some past colleagues have cast doubts for years), he would indeed seem ideal to star with Wiig--though Murray would have been wonderful too in a different way.

You've got to give American studio buccaneers their props: they know a brilliant idea for a movie when they see one. And Maren Ade's "Toni Erdmann" has a truly brilliant idea for an inspired movie comedy. And it's all of that, despite the universal feeling that it's overlong (18 minutes short of three hours).

The basic idea of the film is that a playful and prankish retired music teacher named Winfried is overcome with worry about the joylessness in the life of his smart, beautiful and ultra-competent grown daughter Ines.

Here, from 40-year old German writer/director Maren Ade is a family relationship and dynamic seldom, if ever, explored in films whether comic or dramatic: older fathers and their successful, hard-working grown daughters.

What Winfried (Peter Simonischek) does in his worry about the happiness of his grown daughter Ines (Sandra Muller) goes way beyond email, phone calls, Facebook and Skype. He shows up suddenly in Bucharest, where she is now living while she performs a job with a lot of room for money and advancement and no room at all for human fulfillment.

She is, in fact, part of a growing profession in Europe and all around the West--a trans-national consultant for businesses that don't want to downsize themselves (lest their workers suddenly and justifiably take troublesome offense) so they leave it to itinerant consultants who swoop in from other countries and recommend all the unpopular business moves that will put people out of work. It is her job to manufacture misery and link it to plausible reasons.

Our writer-director doesn't rub our faces in the politics or morality of all this but then she really doesn't have to. Early on, though, she does show us, a chilling, even terrible, moment when the worried father says something to his daughter that, to this father, seemed so out of bounds that it's close to unforgivable. In a moment of extreme frustration and anger at her cold all-business life, he asks her "are you even human?" That's when you know in full how very much is going on beneath all this joking.

Which is most of what you see in a nearly three-hour film.

This is, indeed, a comedy. And often it's a brilliant one--even hilarious. But it's very German which means its comic rhythms are nothing at all like those you'll undoubtedly see in an American remake (when and if there is one). The laughs come at odd times. They sneak up and surprise. And they last longer because they don't go for the boffo belly laugh but rather give you scenes that accumulate their humor with such cleverness and drollery that your laughter keeps running for a minute or so.

It's close to a terrific film -- too long, to be sure but completely enjoyable.

Winfried is played by Peter Simonischek, a large shaggy actor in the part of the elder prankster who can't help putting on everyone around him. His big joke is to pretend to be someone else whether it's for the sake of the mailman or his daughter's business associates.

So that's what he does. He insists on an alternate identity -- Toni Erdmann -- an all-knowing "life coach" who wears the rattiest and most absurd wig in all of Western Europe and fake teeth that make him look like a total yokel. With all of his jokes and joshing, the business folks his daughter is trying to impress find him funny and keep inviting him along which, of course, torments the poor woman who mostly wants her beloved father to disappear.

The divine right of loving parents to embarrass their grown children for the higher good has never been explored as cleverly as this -- not that I know of. It does, as I said, go over the line into brutality a few times, both in the father's behavior and his daughter's (she humiliates a sex partner she's tired of). As a portrait of a young woman forced, by an adoring father, to examine her own life, it's almost as good as its exalted reputation.

The unforgettable scene is Ines' birthday party, a calamity which is funny because it resists all accumulated "wisdom" of male American comic professionals about when to end a joke and how to carry it off. It begins with a very female moment and continues in a fresh, new and very female way.

Simonischek is delightful all through the film but it's at that birthday party, with its ultimate recognition of what her life has become, that actress Sandra Huller gives the film the heart and art and soul that make it so very good. As passionless Ines, she had earlier been forced by her father into an impromptu, all-stops-out version of a Whitney Houston song to a roomful of strangers. It's at that party, though, that we see a rare thing in a movie comedy--a perfectly rational woman in total control of herself but in sudden full understanding of how utterly nuts her life has become.

Forget Kristen Wiig's version whenever it happens. For the moment, just enjoy it for  the great thing Huller makes of it now.


"Toni Erdmann"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Starring: Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn

Director: Maren Ade

Running time: 162 minutes

Rated: R for sexual content, frontal nudity, language and drugs.

The lowdown: A prankish father bedevils his workaholic grown daughter out of love. In German with subtitles.


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