Is Toni Erdmann Ripe for a Hollywood Remake?

in 28th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Yael Shuv

The news about a planned American remake of Toni Erdmann with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig in the roles of jester father and uptight daughter is hardly a surprise. Some people even deem this a condemnation of Maren Ade’s German film, winner of the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes and Palm Springs – because if Hollywood likes it, it must be trite and cheesy to begin with.

But the fact that Toni Erdmann’s plot and characters seem suitable for a Hollywood adaptation doesn’t in itself testify to a problem in the original text. The difference between a one of a kind work of art and a cliché is very often in the details, and Ade’s film is all nuance. Every note is precise, and yet the film’s unique tonal orchestration seems natural and uncalculated, and that makes it a cinematic wonder.

Despairing and hilarious in turns, awkward and liberating at the same time, this complex portrait of a father daughter relationship made me weep in the most unexpected moments. All these conflicting feelings mesh together in the climactic nude birthday party scene that works on so many levels. What starts as what seems to be a nervous breakdown, as Ines Conradi (the superb Sandra Hüller) desperately tries to get out of a tight dress just as the first guests start to arrive, turns into a sharp satire of corporate culture. When Ines opens the door wearing nothing but her own skin, and invites her guests to take off their clothes and join her in a “social game”, the varied responses are very revealing and hugely entertaining. Yet, the film never loses its compassion and humanity, and we feel deeply for Ines whose only way to tear off her imposed “I am a professional corporate big shot in full control” façade is to literally take it off. We also feel for her naïve secretary who would do anything to please her boss, and even for the boss’ boss, who feels the need to scrape off some of his macho cluelessness. When Ines’ father arrives incognito, completely covered in a furry costume, the scene takes on a primal layer. It all leads to the simplest and yet most complex moment in the father daughter relationship as they hug in the park. Whoever directs the parallel scene in the Hollywood version will be up for a major challenge.

Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi and his toothy alter-ego Toni Erdmann is absolutely wonderful. One can see what attracted Nicholson, who initiated the remake as a vehicle for his screen come back after a six year hiatus. However, as great an actor as he is, Nicholson has a tendency to go big and tip the balance of the films he is in. That approach to performing damaged Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, another remake of a foreign film in which Nicholson appeared in what should have been a supporting role. Toni Erdmann is a unique balance act, and one can only hope the Hollywood version will manage to sustain that balance.