I normally don’t like to harp on length when it comes to critiquing a film, mostly because it usually amounts to nothing more than wishing that films were shorter so that I had time to see more of them. However, what I do tend to have a problem with are poorly paced films, and Toni Erdmann is a great film that is buried under interminable length that absolutely kills the pacing. Clocking in at two hours and 42 minutes, there is absolutely no reason this killer family comedy needed to be as long and meandering as it is, and the final product suffers for it.
The film opens on Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) living his snarky, practical jokester life at the expense of his family and neighbors, yet mostly his good nature places his antics in the realm of innocent fun. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) comes to visit for a social occasion, and we learn that she is the polar opposite of her father: serious, businesslike, and always working. Winfried follows Ines to Romania in the hopes of reconnecting with her, only to function as an embarrassment in front of Ines’ colleagues and potential clients. Yet, after Winfried apparently heads home and effectively out of his daughter’s life, he reappears in a ridiculous wig and false teeth as “Toni Erdmann,” and resumes intrusion into the world of serious business to his daughter’s continual dismay.
When Toni Erdmann delivers on the goods, it is actually a very touching and riotously funny experience. Simonischek is able to pull off Winfried’s over-the-top pranksterism without sacrificing a heartfelt longing to understand his daughter and desire for her happiness. Hüller meanwhile imbues Ines with a no-nonsense attitude that forces her to constantly struggle for recognition amongst her male peers, yet doesn’t make her as happy as such success is supposed to. The tension between them makes for some touching family drama, and the comic set pieces are almost universally fantastic, whether it be “Erdmann” stalking his daughter on a business dinner or the mysterious appearance of a giant hair monster at a work party where everyone is inexplicably naked. It’s delightful when it needs to be and heartfelt at all the right moments, so it’s easy to see why this is the frontrunner for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
But it all comes back to the tedious length of the film, and I could easily envision an hour of this cut finding its way back to the cutting room floor with a minimum of impact lost. For whatever reason, writer-director Maren Ade decided that scenes needed to play out in practically real time, so they tend to drag on without much new information being conveyed. One particularly egregious example is where we watch Ines give a business presentation that has no real bearing on the relationship between her and her father. I suppose it may demonstrate the demoralizing and unsatisfactory role her chosen profession plays in her overall happiness, but it’s so dull and unengaging that this theoretical point is lost in the glazed-over mists of boredom.
There are genuinely gut-busting moments in Toni Erdmann, and the emotional payoff of watching Winfried’s and Ines’ relationship grow does make the experience worth the time and effort. Just don’t be afraid to get up and take a bathroom break if nothing seems to be happening for a little while. Odds are you won’t miss much, and your bladder will thank you for it.