The film that tempted Jack Nicholson out of retirement

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It’s been 10 years since Jack Nicholson last acted, but a remake of German comedy-drama Toni Erdmann almost brought him back to the big screen.

Since turning 70 years old in 2007, Jack Nicholson has appeared in only two films. The first was a starring role alongside Morgan Freeman in Rob Reiner’s gentle comedy The Bucket List and the other was a supporting turn in James L Brooks’ How Do You Know.

The latter of those continued a long line of Nicholson appearing in Brooks’ films, having won two of his three Oscars for Terms Of Endearment and As Good As It Gets. While his role as Paul Rudd’s character’s father wasn’t similarly acclaimed, it remains his only screen role of the 2010s.

Having picked up at least one nomination a decade for half a century before that, Nicholson’s sudden disappearance from the screen feels like it’s left something of a hole. By all accounts, the star has no intention of retiring from public life. Indeed, he has duly turned up on Oscars telecasts, Saturday Night Live’s 40th-anniversary show, and as a contributor on an HBO tribute to the late Muhammad Ali, but he hasn’t taken any film roles.

Naturally, it hasn’t stopped directors courting him for new roles. Nicholson reportedly turned down the role of Woody Grant in 2013’s Nebraska, when his About Schmidt director Alexander Payne offered him it – the same role earned Bruce Dern a Best Actor Oscar nomination that year. Furthermore, he developed St Vincent with writer-director Theodore Melfi, but ultimately decided he didn’t want to act in the project and recommended Bill Murray for the lead instead.

Initially, there were reports that Nicholson had retired due to memory loss, which was giving him trouble remembering his lines, but he debunked these rumours in 2013, saying that his mind was as sharp as ever, and he was simply less inclined to “be out there” any more.

He told The Sun: “The movie business is the greatest business, but I only want to do films that move people; films about emotions and people.”

And so, there has been relatively little sign of Nicholson coming back to acting, except for an unexpected announcement in the run-up to the 89th Academy Awards ceremony. One of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film was Maren Ade’s German comedy-drama Toni Erdmann, and in February 2017, Nicholson became attached to an English-language remake.

Ade’s film charts the estranged relationship between a divorced father and his grown-up daughter. The title refers to an alias of the prank-loving Winfried, who gleans that his high-flying, career-driven offspring Ines is overworking herself as a business consultant, taking her career too seriously and shunning her family. Naturally, he decides to don a pair of fake teeth and a comedy wig and pose as her boss’ life coach in a sustained campaign of public and professional humiliation.

If you’ve not yet caught up with Toni Erdmann, it’s easy to see what would attract Nicholson to a project like this. True to his aforementioned brief, it’s a film about emotions and people, that happens to have a killer lead role for an older male star.

As played by the smirking, bear-like Peter Simonischek, Winfried has an often infuriating penchant for dad jokes, but underneath his socially inappropriate behaviour, he’s got a big heart and he just wants to make his daughter laugh again.

Meanwhile, Ines (Sandra Hüller) is furious with her dad’s continual interference during a crucial negotiation period, but also locked in step with his charades by her determination to keep her professional composure. Over the film’s surprisingly brisk 162-minute running time, you’ll become relatively certain that front is going to crack like an egg at some point.

Crucially, Ade keeps the farce from overpowering the central relationship. All the way up to the touching, absurd finale, which includes gratuitous nudity and a Bulgarian kukeri costume, the film is consistently as funny as it is moving.

The remake

The 2016 film is the rare comedy that doesn’t outstay its welcome despite surpassing the two-hour mark, but that’s precisely because it never descends into cringe comedy. No matter how silly things get, it never loses sight of the father-daughter relationship in the centre. With its life-affirming and crowd-pleasing story, a Hollywood remake couldn’t be too far behind.

When the Toni Erdmann remake was first announced by Paramount, Nicholson and Kristen Wiig (then fresh off Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot) were attached to star as the father and daughter. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were set to produce the film through the sister brand of their Gary Sanchez banner, Gloria Sanchez (which recently gave us Hustlers and Booksmart).

Although Toni Erdmann didn’t win the Oscar, (Iran’s The Salesman bagged the statuette instead) many of the earliest online reports about the remake included speculation that the remake would also be an awards contender, and not unreasonably, as Nicholson holds the distinction of scoring Oscar nominations in every decade from the 1960s to the 2000s.

In June 2017, Girls writers Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner were drafted into produce and adapt Ade’s screenplay, making their feature screenwriting debut. However, they were later replaced by Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, who wrote the Oscar-nominated original screenplay for 2010’s The Kids Are Alright.

Development continued for another year, but in August 2018, Nicholson dropped out of the project. At the time, Paramount reported that the project was still in development, with Wiig still attached and Cholodenko taking on directing duties. As of 2020 however, the remake is still languishing in development hell.

Playing Winfried (or whatever his American-language counterpart might have been called) would have marked a significant departure for Nicholson and it’s encouraging that he’s being selective with projects. Perhaps if Brooks directed another movie, (he hasn’t been back since How Do You Know either) we’d see the star reunite with him again, but his recent track record shows he’s not going to come back for just any old role.

Incidentally, while there’s no doubt that Nicholson’s interest was instrumental in getting the remake into development, it should also be enough to interest audiences in seeking out the original Toni Erdmann. Behind the “one-inch-high barrier” of English subtitles, (as Bong Joon-ho described it while collecting one of Parasite’s many recent awards wins) there’s a universal story to be enjoyed.

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