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Oscar contender ‘Toni Erdmann’ finds the funny in family

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A busy, career-driven woman gets a surprise visit from her estranged father and is forced to spend time with him. Things take a hilarious turn when he creates an alter ego and poses as her CEO’s life coach.
USA TODAY NETWORK

You can’t choose your family, but you can grudgingly try to avoid them at all costs.

That’s the predicament tightly wound corporate consultant Ines (Sandra Hüller) finds herself in in Toni Erdmann (now showing in select cities nationwide, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington; expands to 20 additional cities Friday, including Sacramento, Atlanta and Seattle). It’s vying for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards on Feb. 26.

The nearly three-hour German comedy charts the strained relationship between Ines and her semi-estranged father, Winifred (Peter Simonischek), who poses as a life coach named Toni Erdmann and infiltrates his daughter’s professional life, popping up at important meetings and work events in a peculiar, but well-meaning attempt to reconnect with her face to face.

Toni, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival last year, is the third feature written and directed by German filmmaker Maren Ade, who was interested in exploring family dynamics after mining relationships (Everyone Else) and friendships (The Forest for the Trees) in her previous two movies.

Family is “something that’s sometimes so static and hard to escape,” Ade says. “I was interested in this moment between parents and children when something’s switched. They’re both adults now, so I thought it could be a big adventure for two people who know each other very well to start from zero, to meet again as strangers.”

Although not autobiographical, elements of Winifred’s oafish alter ego are inspired by Ade’s own prankster father. To disguise himself as Toni, Winifred dons a scraggly brown wig and oversized fake teeth — a gag that stems from Ade’s stint working as a bartender at the German premiere of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery 20 years ago.

“They gave away these fake teeth and I had the feeling my father would enjoy them, so I gave them to him,” Ade says. “From then on, he used them when we were stopped at the traffic light looking over to the other car or when a waiter comes. They really suited him and I liked that little moment of transforming.”

So far this awards season, Toni has been named best foreign film by the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society of Film Critics and earned nominations from the Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards. The well-reviewed dramedy (92% of critics liked it, according to aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes) was long considered the Oscar front-runner, although some pundits now predict it will go to Iranian entry The Salesman, in light of President Trump’s controversial travel ban.

“Most (voters) have seen that Toni has won most of the critics awards, and in theory Toni would be your favorite to probably win,” says Gregory Ellwood, editor-at-large at film site The Playlist. “But my feeling is that the Academy is going to go in the direction of The Salesman, because like most of America, they’re not interested in being quiet.”

Whether Toni is victorious remains to be seen, although it’s not the end of the road for the offbeat dramedy. An American remake is in the works, with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig attached to star.

“When I was shooting, I always made this joke when the actors said, ‘Oh, how was (that take)?’ and I said, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ ” Ade jokes. ” ‘They will do it better in the remake.’ “

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