Some of my all-time favourite film exchanges (and in general, really) are from Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), when main character Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) joins his wife Carolyn (Anette Bening) for a business dinner. She introduces him to an estate agent (who also happens to be her lover, but that is beside the point), to which Burnham replies that they have actually met before. When the estate agent naturally pretends to remember it, Burnham replies with a calming smile: “It’s OK, I wouldn’t remember me either.”

A fish out of water. The films are not particularly similar, however, this scene features several elements which echo current German comedy Toni Erdmann, written and directed by Maren Ade. We meet the relatively steely career woman Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), who works in outsourcing for an international company based in Bucharest, and who suddenly gets a visit from her father from Germany. The semi-retired children’s piano teacher and perpetual joker Winfried (Peter Simonischek) decided on the impulse trip partly due to his dog dying, and partly because he suspects things are not as great as his daughter portrays.

Ines squeezes her father into her tight schedule by taking him along to a work do where the unkempt man is like a fish out of water – thus creating some moments with obvious associations to American Beauty. The similarities are, however, not only found in the situation comedy, but also in some of the themes, as both films depict a form of rebellion against the social roles people are expected to play.

tonierdmann1Alter ego. In Toni Erdmann, this happens first and foremost as daddy Winfried extends his stay in the Romanian capital and takes on the part of ”businessman and coach” Toni Erdmann – complete with a long-haired wig and protruding false teeth. This way he becomes part of the daughter’s professional and social crowd, without her choosing to blow his cover (for several reasons, some more obvious than others).

With this premise, it is perhaps natural to compare this film with the classic comedy Tootsie (1982), in which Dustin Hoffman plays an actor pretending to be female in a bid to gain a part – and this way learns a few things about how women are treated. But, whilst a more expected storyline would have been to make Erdmann some sort of guru admired by everyone, Maren Ade chooses a rather more realistic approach, whereby the characters – akin to us in the auditorium – view him as a strange and charming weirdo.

Nevertheless, the father’s alter ego functions as the traditional fool, exposing and ridiculing some of the mechanisms of the international business world. Also here, it is mainly about the way women are treated in a still male-dominated world, as when Ines brings Erdmann to a difficult client meeting because the presence of an older, male (and predominantly silent) colleague adds gravitas and respect. Throughout, the film clarifies some of the gender codes found in this environment, for instance when male colleagues at  a work gathering discuss where they are going out afterwards – and not least when Ines’ is forced to show the wife of a potential US client, around the Bucharest shopping centres.

Although it does feature some gloriously embarrassing moments, Maren Ade, sympathetically enough, cares too much for her characters to give in to the awkward face-in-palm humour which is almost ubiquitous in the aftermath of the TV-series The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Character-driven. Lasting a whole two hours and 42 minutes, Toni Erdmann is in it for the long haul. This means that it is more character-driven than what is usually found within the typically more plot-based comedy genre. As such, you could argue that it is more of a comedy drama, or a drama featuring comic performances, rather than a pure comedy, as the, generally low-key, film frequently calls for chuckling rather than laughing out loud. Although, it does feature some gloriously embarrassing moments, Maren Ade, sympathetically enough, cares too much for her characters to give in to the awkward face-in-palm humour which is almost ubiquitous in the aftermath of the TV-series The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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