Hannes and his friends have an annual tradition of trekking across Europe, but this summer, the itinerary is different: Hannes has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he’s decided to turn the group’s traditional road trip into one last bonding experience before euthanizing himself in Ostend, Belgium. His friends don’t know Hannes’ secret when they set out, but it’s better that audiences do in order to adequately prepare themselves for the succession of contrived catharses that await in “Tour de force,” a manipulative German dramedy that plays like a “Big Chill”-themed bike ride, with the bonus of actually getting to know the suicidal friend.
Between its ensemble of recognizable German actors and its kid-gloves handling of Hannes’ potentially controversial decision, “Tour de force” stands a solid chance at being one of the country’s more successful pics in 2014 — a status corroborated by its selection to play the Locarno fest’s 8,000-seat Piazza Grande outdoor series. And yet populist helmer Christian Zuebert’s innocuous touch is so benign, its hard to imagine foreigners expressing much interest, calling to mind the comparably sentimental “Little White Lies,” which cleaned up in France but earned just $206,000 in the States (though it suffered from a full hour more of narrative fat).
Clocking in at barely 90 minutes, this cross-country venture leaves precious little time for sightseeing. It hems and haws a bit at the outset as the characters kid one another about Hannes’ choice of Belgium for this year’s trip, dismissing it as a country of “waffle munchers and truffle fuckers” (this from a collection of one-dimensional stereotypes who aren’t necessarily doing Germany any favors), but opts to linger on as many dewy-eyed moments as possible once the protagonist’s true agenda is out in the open.
In addition to Hannes (played with puppy-dog eyes by Florian David Fitz), there’s his hyper-understanding wife, Kiki (Julia Koschitz), and resentful kid brother, Finn (Volker Bruch); mildly combative married couple Mareike (Victoria Mayer) and Dominik (Johannes Allmayer); and incorrigible womanizer Michael (Jurgen Vogel). As part of the custom, the longtime friends challenge one another with certain tasks that must be completed before they reach their destination, and though the dares are all somewhat extreme, ranging from going out in drag to participating in a gang-bang, the film manages to suck the anarchy out of these activities.
Ultimately, “Tour de force” feels as vanilla as its tooth-rotting acoustic rock soundtrack, which is loaded with the sort of coffee-shop-ready, English-language folk ballads that would send the more musically discriminating members of the audience driving to Belgium to off themselves, too. Granted, films like this may offer a valuable service in allowing the public to vicariously work through issues with their own mortality, but where is it written that they must look and sound like feel-good TV commercials? Just as some prescription drug ads hint at the underlying issue, but instruct you to “ask your doctor” for details, this script — co-written by Zuebert and first-timer Ariane Schroeder — retreats from the true emotional subtext of not only Hannes’ situation, but all the characters’ assorted personal issues.
Zuebert wants “Tour de force” to feel like a reassuring group hug, which is why the pic’s big moment of truth — when Hannes must decide whether to go through with his assisted suicide — comes as such a powerful surprise. For once, the helmer takes the unpredictable path, sparing the golden lighting and cheeky jokes used to inoculate all the other awkward bits. Here is one moment these characters won’t be sharing on Facebook, and yet, it’s the one that will define their lives going forward, a scene that makes all the fluff that surrounds it worthwhile.