In Toni Erdmann, a very good and peculiar comedy from Germany’s Maren Ade, a father subjects his high-strung adult daughter to a kind of unexpected — and clearly unwanted — shock therapy, using joke-shop fake teeth, a fright wig and a freakish sense of humor as tools of enlightenment. The aim is to raise her consciousness about the personal cost of her immersion in the corporate world.
While the film gets lots of mileage from the comedy of embarrassment, it’s much more — more complex, affecting, absurd, surprising and funny than a bare plotline suggests. The movie isn’t just about the getting of wisdom; it has a lot of interesting and uncomfortable things to say about the relationship of children and parents, especially as the latter are getting into the three-score-and-10 range.
That’s roughly the age of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a rumpled suburban music teacher and lifelong prankster, who, in short order, has lost his last student and his beloved dog. His bizarre humor can get old quickly, to both friends and strangers. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) could hardly be more different — a management consultant who’s helping a Romanian oil company transact a heartless bit of business.
She’s a capable player of the game, while chafing at the slights suffered by women in the high-end corporate world. She’s not amused when Dad pays an unannounced visit, in all his bucktoothed glory, to her workplace in Bucharest. He calls himself Toni Erdmann, and puts his daughter on the spot. It might almost be interpreted as an act of hostility.
Director Ade (2009’s Everyone Else) is aware that Winfried may have mixed motives, not all of them positive. By embarrassing Ines in front of her colleagues, he may well be trying to re-establish the control that older parents see slipping away.
It could be that he’s simply trying to cling to the past — it seems likely he played pranks on her when she was a child — and it could be that he is deteriorating mentally.
All this helps move the film — which is Germany’s submission for best foreign-language movie — beyond a simple comedy, as does the director’s refusal to objectify Ines’ sufferings. In the end there’s much that’s seriously unfunny about her work life.
And despite her growing annoyance at her dad’s provocations, she has a genuine affection for him. It works both ways, as his own frustrations with her never result in a permanent wedge.
Dad and daughter both work themselves into a major eruption. In the meantime, there are numerous enjoyable and touching set pieces, including an off-the-wall nude party scene that perfectly demonstrates why the film is about more than an extended — very extended — prank.
The scene goes on too long — in fact, so does the film, with a 162-minute running time. If Toni Erdmann had less to offer, that would be a much bigger issue.
That the movie works so well is also due to the exceptional talents of leads Simonischek and Hüller, who hold nothing back — especially the former, whose Winfried is one of the oddest ducks in recent movies. Perhaps part of their devotion to their roles is that both characters, in their own way, are actors.
In German, Romanian and English with English subtitles
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens Feb. 10 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Maren Ade
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller
Rated: R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language, brief drug use)
Running time: 162 min.