Tag Archives: comedy

The greatest love of all: Toni Erdmann (2016)

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Image via jvc (Flickr)

I’m reminded of the efforts to sell The Death of Mr Lazarescu as a comedy because it didn’t fit into any other marketable box. Toni Erdmann is not a comedy, and the ‘prankster’ father present in every synopsis barely resembles the Winfried/Toni Erdmann we meet in the film. No, this is a deeply depressed and bitter film, filled with frustration at what market forces and globalisation are doing to people of all ages and at all levels of society.

As the father and daughter, Sinonischek and Huller give us two of the saddest characters of 21st Century film. The seams that hold their lives could tear at any moment, and they can keep from falling apart for a while, but the time will come when they realise there is no point trying any more and they might as well have a full breakdown. Winfried is a failed husband and failed father, blundering through one encounter after another, his alienation becoming his defining characteristic. Ines is an exceptionally competent business consultant, capable of turning her own blunders into leverage in a heartbeat, and the fact that she is so good at her job has stripped away everything else, turned her into an emotional husk, alternately raw and unfeeling. They both need a hug.

Thankfully, director Ade has a lot of warmth towards these characters. Perhaps it would have been more of a comedy if she didn’t. But she works so hard to make you care about them, and the actors give all they have, especially Huller. You so want them to connect with each other, or with anything, really, and it’s so hard to see them keep missing. It’s a better, more excruciating film for that warmth.

Did I say it wasn’t funny? Oh, no, it’s funny. It’s piss-funny in places, especially in the final hour. The situations are funny, expertly written and performed to get the laughs, but you’re relieved as much as amused. A few moments are profoundly moving and funny at the same time.

Will they be okay, though? Probably not. The world isn’t getting any friendlier. Toni Erdmann is a remarkable film for our times, one that I may one day call great.

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A real-life Todd on NBC’s ‘Outsourced’

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it explicitly before, but I am part of the Indian outsourcing world. My job at Trivandrum’s Technopark involves proofreading medical letters, and I am the only foreigner in my company. While Kerala is a world away from Mumbai, I feel qualified to pass judgment on two aspects 0f NBC’s new situation comedy ‘Outsourced’:

(1) whether or not it is true to life (because I am essentially the show’s main character)

(2) whether or not it is funny (because of my ability to notice what makes me laugh)

To answer (1), let me compare a few situations in the show to how they might play out in my life.

In the first episode, Todd meets his staff by going around the office introducing himself to each of them. The assistant manager tags along quietly beside him. In my office the manager would do all the talking, describing both me and my new colleague for each other’s benefit without either of us really having to say anything. Inaccurate.

The staff are immediately revealed to be a collection of stereotypes: the petite and quiet girl, the ambitious and business-obsessed assistant manager, the attractive and assertive girl, the cool and flirtatious young guy and the overweight dude who won’t shut up. In my office, it takes literally years for some colleagues to reveal their character to you, and generally interactions are kept to business – to wit, they bring as little character to work as possible, saving it for after hours. If you’re lucky, you get to spend time with them after hours and get to know them better. Inaccurate.

Todd’s fellow foreigners in his Outsourcing Building are a dinki di Aussie chick and Diedrich Bader. I have never seen a dinki di Aussie chick anywhere near my Outsourcing Building, and I most definitely haven’t seen Diedrich Bader. Inaccurate.


In the second episode, the office break room is shown to be colourful and filled with a number of snacks and tea-and-coffee-making facilities, with laughter emanating from the mingling men and women on the staff. My break room has some chairs and tables, a big sink, one BRU tea/coffee machine, and a water cooler. The walls are white and bare. The staff generally sit segregated according to gender, and those that mingle with the opposite sex do so very quietly so as not to attract too much attention. They are also usually married couples. Inaccurate.

Todd cannot comprehend the famous Indian head-wobble, so Asha – the attractive and assertive girl – demonstrates it for him by taking his head in her hands and moving it slowly from side to side, all the while looking into his eyes and giggling. If any single one of my female colleagues did this to me, my head would explode right there in their hands – we have barely exchanged a single handshake in two whole years. Inaccurate.

Finally, Gupta unleashes a tirade against all of his fellow staff, pointing out everything that he hates about each of them. In my office, where dancing carefully – and with a smile – around the people you dislike is elevated to an art form, this would only be within the realms of possibility if someone were drunk. It might even become likely in such a case. Gupta, however, is not drunk. Inaccurate.

Verdict: Even allowing for the fact that I work in far-more-conservative Kerala, on point (1), Outsourced gets a FAIL.

Answering (2) is much simpler: did I laugh? Well, a majority of the jokes were infantile, such as the parade of ridiculous items sold by All American Novelties, Todd’s company. Stupid does not equal funny.

Others COULD have been funny, but were lazily thrown in rather than stretched to their capacity, like when Manmeet is saying goodbye to one of his phone girlfriends and manages to sell her a teddy bear that plays recordings. He asks her what he should record into it for her to listen to when she goes to sleep at night. I would have laughed hard if he’d sat there in silence for ten seconds, getting progressively more disgusted as he listened to her obviously filthy request; as it was, he quickly told her “I can’t make a cute little teddy bear say that”. This is spoonfeeding where it really wasn’t necessary – a lot of the best humour allows room for the audience to read something into it, and I wish the writers had realised this.


Most importantly, in each episode several jokes were downright offensive, and they WERE often stretched to their limits, making for even more excruciating cringes. For example, when Todd spots a COW outside the office WINDOW and then, after listening to a long SPEECH about HINDU BELIEFS, asks “So, what time is lunch?”. NOT COOL. Also, when Gupta goes on that afore-mentioned ‘I hate you all’ rant he comes to “Mr All-American”… and has absolutely nothing to say! What?! He’s perfect, while all of the Indians have negative characteristics? Between this and the constant stereotyping, I detect a hidden agenda!

Verdict: I understand that people have different beliefs on what is and isn’t funny, but in the eyes of this viewer, Outsourced is DOUBLY NOT FUNNY – once for failing to make me laugh, and once for pissing me off at the same time.

I guess all this indicates that the show is on the fast track to cancellation. However, as Peta Jinnath Andersen notes in her article at The NRI, the pilot pulled in an impressive number of viewers, so who knows? She and Amitha Knight, who are both Indians in the USA, have written well about it, so check out their pieces (both of which are of course much more insightful than mine).

As it stands, I will be tuning in for the third episode to see if it can elevate itself in any way. Even with the bar set so low, I’m not holding my breath.

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Film Review: ‘Four Lions’ (2010)

IMDb / Ben Walters (Sight & Sound) / Kim Newman (Empire)
Written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, Simon Blackwell & Chris Morris
Directed by Chris Morris

Rating: E

Four Lions, from the mind of Brass Eye/The Day Today genius Chris Morris, is that rarest of cinema commodities: something different. Earlier this year a film about a man sewing people’s mouths to other people’s anuses was released, and among seasoned viewers barely a bored eyebrow was raised; another, whose content contains purportedly the most controversial rape scene in film history, is upcoming and anticipated largely with detached groans and eye-rolls. But here is Four Lions, here is a film that is genuinely fresh. Rather than aiming solely for the gutter – which it hits in esteemed fashion with some of the most erudite dick and fart jokes in years – it also reaches for the stars, skewering almost everyone in its satirical sights and eliciting tears of laughter and pathos in the process.

Omar (Riz Ahmed, in a hopefully star-making performance) is the leader of a tiny stand-alone cell of British-born-and-based mujahideen, planning their entry into heaven by way of martyrdom as they blow themselves up at… a Boots chemist’s, perhaps? Well, they haven’t quite decided where yet. His brethren are Waj (Kayvan Novak), an imbecile whose idea of Firdaus is a ride at Alton Towers theme park; Barry (Nigel Lindsay), an Englishman convert to Islam in desperate need of a sense of humour; Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), a camera-shy, softly spoken guy unsure of the mission, and also a very poor impressionist; and Hassan (Arsher Ali), a wannabe rapper convinced of the worthiness of suicide bombing by Barry’s unusual methods of indoctrination. While this sorry lot look on paper like a typical motley crew in another stupid buddy comedy, they are elevated by a combination of sharp writing and excellent, naturalistic performances.

Indeed, one of the major elements that sets Four Lions apart is that emphasis on keeping it real. A clash of so many varied ideas could all so easily spiral out of control, but while the overall premise and events of the plot are almost all completely absurd, an insistence on a documentary feel grounds the film throughout. Omar and his band are shot in a mixture of sharp zooms, medium close-ups and detached long shots, and their performances overall seem improvised (although given how neatly each scene fits together, they probably weren’t). Most of the music – with the notable exception of Hassan and Waj’s hilarious rhymes, and the repeated use of a terrible pop classic – is simple Arabic-sounding tones and used only in rare cases during scene transitions, allowing the characterisations and dialogue of these lovable idiots to shine.

The key to the film, however, is in the scenes with Omar’s family, and one imagines this is where many viewers will lose interest and/or respect. His disapproving older brother, sweet and supportive wife and doting son could all come out of a season of EastEnders (and the actress who plays his wife is presently, as it happens, acting in EastEnders)… but this is precisely the point. The spectre of terrorism and terrorists, so puffed-up and sensationalised in the news media, is brought crashing to earth in a comparison with the preposterous unreality of a soap opera. At the same time, folks who watch soap operas on a regular basis probably swallow most of what popular news media throws at them, from nukes in Iraq to the inherent perversion of Britain’s footballers; Morris grasps the opportunity to bring that greatest fear of the day as close to home as possible, and show that, you know, these guys maybe aren’t all that different from us. There is an outstanding scene between Omar and his wife at the hospital where she works, a showcase for both the superb script and note-perfect performers that sums up the entire film before you can even realise it.

As for the jokes, there are often several classics in a given scene, and they cover the gamut – encompassing ridiculously rabid anti-Semitism, making fun of English and Asian accents, brutal slapstick, and of course the above-mentioned toilet humour (which, in a clever twist, is often in Urdu). Alongside all this are the innumerable perceptive lines that are at once amusing and disheartening, or in some cases deeply moving. One can only imagine that the process of writing was arduous: first to think of something funny, then to put it into a character’s voice, then to make it work within the framework of a scene, and finally to fit all this into the fabric of the film as a whole. Rather than trying to select some of the finer gems, it’s probably better to simply allow you to experience them fresh as you watch the film – much of their greatness is in their delivery, particularly by the fantastically poker-faced Barry. Anyway, if I tried we’d be here all night. It’s the kind of film where if you see it with friends, you start quoting it to each other immediately upon exiting the cinema and continue for days, months and quite likely years afterwards.

At bottom, it’s simply extraordinary that a comedy film about a group of suicide bombers was made at all, let alone one so expertly crafted. When it ended, I felt a rare sense of exhiliration – at having been completely enveloped in the film’s world, at having laughed myself silly, and at having witnessed something so brilliantly subversive it might even one day deserve comparison with that great master of absurdist cinema, Buñuel. I can only hope that Morris, a renowned near-recluse and non-participant in the modern media circus, suddenly starts to take pleasure in being highly productive, and we don’t have to wait another ten years for his next slice of Zeitgeist-distilling greatness.

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