The glorious peculiarity of the German comedy “Toni Erdmann” resists easy categorization, and you can’t really tell what’s up, or why you should see it, judging from the coming-attractions trailer put out by its domestic distributor, Sony Pictures Classics. SPC boasts some of the savviest stewards in international film, and even they can’t figure out how to sell this movie. What is it? Something about a tightly wound businesswoman and her relentlessly practical-joking father. But what?
I suggest you find out the old-fashioned way and actually see it. Writer-director Maren Ade has created a story, a profoundly complicated relationship and a uniquely bracing black comedy of unusual depth of feeling. “Toni Erdmann” offers a wealth of casual, wickedly funny insights into what makes parents and children, women and men do the things they do under duress. Watching Ade’s film I had zero idea where it was going scene to scene, even moment to moment, and Ade pushes her characters into ever-stranger directions. I only knew I was the hands of a fascinating, tonally ambitious filmmaker working at a very high level.
Plotwise: pretty simple. Returning from Shanghai, business consultant Ines reunites in Germany with her recently retired music teacher father, Winfried. She’s about to scoot off again to Bucharest, Romania, where she advises an oil firm on how best to downsize a few hundred employees.
This father/daughter relationship has been strained for years, maybe forever. Winfried is exasperating, always pulling someone’s leg, popping in a pair of screwy false teeth, plopping a black fright wig on his head. The opening scene of “Toni Erdmann” (the title comes from the name of Winfried’s alter ego) sets up the picture beautifully, as Winfried receives a package at his modest apartment, and calmly informs the delivery man that it probably contains the mail-order bomb ordered by his pretend “brother,” Toni.
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Much of the picture takes place in Bucharest, as Winfried takes up Ines on her half-hearted offer to host him there. She reluctantly brings dad to a party at the American Embassy; she’s astonished and somewhat hurt that he proves more socially savvy, in his outlandish fashion, than she. This is a woman not comfortable in her own skin. She’s something of a hollow log emotionally, and her only release comes in the role of sometime lover of one of her mansplaining, patronizing male colleagues.
The film takes a wild left turn at the halfway point, with an explicit sex scene, cold as ice. Later it’s her fright-wig father who helps Ines reconnect to her better instincts. In the second half of “Toni Erdmann” two major sequences – a karaoke version of “The Greatest Love of All,” sung by Ines at her father’s urging at an Easter egg party, and a nudist birthday gathering that plays like a sex farce edition of a corporate team-building exercise – takes the characters to the brink, and pulls them back just in time. Ines realizes, deep down, she must do something drastic to save herself. And that something is allow her father to be the genial crackpot he was born to be.
Running over 2 1/2 hours and worth every minute, Ade’s film showcases the brilliant whip-crack of an actress, Sandra Huller, as Ines, and the veteran Austrian actor Peter Simonischek, as her father, aka Toni Erdmann. The movie has a lot to say about the endless, free-floating bs women must contend with in a capitalistic patriarchy. (After one supervisor insults and flatters Ines in the same instant, while describing her dismissively as a feminist, she replies, curtly: “I’m not a feminist or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.”) At the Cannes Film Festival last year, the jury ignored Ade’s film altogether. But it has found a considerable, gratefully discombobulated audience all around the world, and it deserves one here.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek, Michael Wittenborn.
Writer-director: Maren Ade.
Running time: 162 minutes.
Rating: R (for strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language and brief drug use).