Jack Nicholson as ‘Toni Erdmann’: When right-minded ideas come out wrong

WATCH: Justin Chang reviews "Toni Erdmann,” the film starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn and Thomas Loibl.

Maybe it was just coincidence that I was sitting in intermission of Glenn Close’s revived “Sunset Boulevard” when this news of the Jack Nicholson “Toni Erdmann” remake came through. It sure felt like fate though.

There I was Tuesday night, watching Close as Norma Desmond. There are good reasons to stage theater revivals and bad reasons to stage theater revivals (and, these days on Broadway, really bad, cynical, money-grubbing reasons to stage theater revivals). I won’t offer a thought on what animates the new Andrew Lloyd Webber production; you could make various cases. But Close — who also played the part in the earlier Broadway production — is indisputably a good reason to see it.

Of course, the actress didn’t have the original role: Patti LuPone did. LuPone was the one ready for her close-up when the show opened in London in 1993. And she was set to reprise the part on Broadway — so set that when she didn’t get it, she successfully sued Lloyd Webber. None of that mattered to audiences who saw Close tackle the part on Broadway. Nor will it matter to those seeing it now. This is Glenn Close’s role. Whatever LuPone did on the West End, Close does it just as well; in fact, she does it better. You can’t imagine anyone else doing Desmond. Nor, with apologies to Broadway’s original Eva Peron, should you.


Which brings me to Nicholson. It is great — unquestionably beautiful and great — that Nicholson is returning to the screen. He hasn’t been there in seven years (James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know?”) and, if we’re being honest, really hasn’t been there in a decade (Rob Reiner’s “The Bucket List”). At 79, he’s been in a kind of unofficial state of retirement.

But is it great he’s doing it this way?

“Toni Erdmann,” in case you’re not down with the foreign scene, is the German-language, largely Romania-shot movie that tackles big issues like globalism and feminism in the context of one of the most complex, human and funny parent-offspring relationships in recent film memory. Nominated for the foreign-language Oscar (and in theaters currently), it explores the dynamic of a goofy-but-vulnerable older dad, Winfried, who adopts the titular alter ego as a way of connecting with his progeny, his uptight and barely indulgent corporate daughter, Ines. The movie manages to make these people come alive — it manages to make our own relationships come alive, if that doesn’t sound too hyperbolic.

WATCH: Justin Chang reviews "Toni Erdmann,” the film starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn and Thomas Loibl.

A great sophomore director, Maren Ade, made it, and she assembled both a terrific cast of people with great theater backgrounds — the Austrian stage great Peter Simonischek plays Winfried and East German-born star Sandra Hüller is Ines. (Here’s more on what’s in “Toni Erdmann,” and the incredibly handmade process that went into creating it.) I think it’s the best movie of the year. I’m far from alone.

Nicholson apparently loved the movie too. Per the Variety story that broke the news, he adored it — so much so that he persuaded Paramount to buy the English-language remake rights as a starring vehicle for him, with the project attracting Adam McKay to produce and Kristen Wiig to star as the Ines character.

The idea of liking “Toni Erdmann” is good. The idea of more people becoming familiar with “Toni Erdmann” is good. But this remake is a bad idea‎.

It’s not that remakes of foreign-language film can’t work, though I can’t think of many recent ones that did. (Scorsese’s “The Departed” is one of the few that comes to mind.) It’s that this particular foreign-language remake can’t work.

Right off the bat, the setting is a problem. The sub-surface tension of “Toni” concerns Western Europeans working in Eastern Europe (Ines is involved a Romanian deal for her multinational); it’s a plot line that illuminates so much about modern European capitalism; when Ines comments on a giant mall built for no one, it hits home with anyone who’s ever witnessed the false promise of globalism across the Continent. Sure, you can imagine Nicholson’s version as some American bigwig in a hardscrabble foreign place too. But it loses that specificity.

The tone is a bigger problem. There’s a kind of absurdist, at times even gleefully nihilist, spirit to “Toni Erdmann.” And it’s not just Winfried — Ines at one point throws a “naked party,” and at another sings karaoke Whitney Houston, in two of the wildest scenes you’ll see on screen this year. And let’s face it: Absurdism and gleeful nihilism are modes that Americans just don’t do particularly well. (We do a lot of modes well. Those just aren’t among them.)

Maybe the biggest problem, though, is the people making this movie. Which director can ably take on such a mix of tones; who can find slapstick comedy and poignant humanism in the same film, sometimes even in the same scene? Jim Brooks in his heyday, maybe. Lawrence Kasdan, possibly. But who actively working today? David O. Russell is the closest name I can come up with. And I’m not even sure about him. (Another remote possibility, someone with an outside shot of pulling it off, is McKay himself. Perhaps knowing the foolishness of the errand, he’s keeping a producerial arm’s length, at least for the moment.)

And then you get to Nicholson. Part of the joy of the “Toni” character is that even though he’s a fundamentally silly figure, he’s also at heart a rather sad one. This is a man who puts on false teeth and pretends to be a life coach while simultaneously mourning the loss of his dog. Ade called what Simonischek was doing as Toni was “making it so that you can see past the jokes into his soul.” And I’m just not convinced you get that with Nicholson. I think what you’d get if you looked past the jokes with Nicholson was more Nicholson. (And yep, that takes into account “About Schmidt,” maybe the closest thing to this role he’s done.)

It would be unfair to beat up on the resident of ol’ Bad Boy Drive though. It’s not his fault. We just don’t have actors who can do that antic-but-heartfelt thing. Run down mentally the American actors of that generation who might fit the bill. Steve Martin? Too glib. Bill Murray? Too dark. John Malkovich? Too emotionally inaccessible. Some British actors come to mind — particularly those with Monty Python-esque backgrounds. Even they seem like stretches. The American actor who actually most comes to mind is sadly someone no longer around: Robin Williams.

The truth is “Toni Erdmann” shouldn’t be remade not because it’s too sacred, or because remakes are inherently bad, or because any of a dozen cliches you read in curmudgeonly posts when these things like this are announced. It’s because to do it as an American “Toni Erdmann” is to erode much of what made the movie so special in the first place.

Basically, this isn’t a Glenn Close situation. In fact, it’s the opposite of a Glenn Close situation. You can’t imagine someone else taking on the part and running with it because you can’t see a single flaw in the original performance, and you can’t see a single conceivable improvement made by someone else.

But there is good news. The announcement of the “Toni Erdmann” remake comes at a propitious time. Final Oscar voting begins Monday. And “Erdmann” — which was criminally shut out of a prize at Cannes, not to mention Ade ignored entirely for best director — could use a boost. Voters, many of whom no doubt haven’t seen the film, will be sitting down to fill out their ballots. They may not know Toni Erdmann from Tony Dorsett. But they know Nicholson liked it. And that may be enough to get them to vote for it and spur it to Oscar victory. Sometimes it can be good to be ready for your close-up.

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Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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