On paper, the premise of Maren Ade‘s Toni Erdmann—a prankster father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), drops in unannounced on his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a high-powered managing consultant working in Bucharest—seems like a recipe for disaster, a concept more suited to lame, retrograde comedy than a genuine arthouse success. But it’s to Ade’s credit that Toni Erdmann is so consistently surprising, never going where you expect it to and always pushing further just when you think it might pull back. After first dropping in on Ines, Winfried finds his attempts to connect with his estranged daughter rebuffed at every turn, and thus shortly leaves. Under the guise of life coach “Toni Erdmann” (a transformation that involves little more than bad false teeth and a sloppy wig), he reinserts himself back into her life and the surrounding corporate culture, with increasingly absurd and surprisingly moving results—further details of which are best left unspoiled.
But it’s Ade and her two superb leads’ efforts at dissecting the nuances of this central relationship that elevates the film.
What’s so impressive about Ade’s film is the sheer multivalence of its conceit: It’s a deft character study of two wildly clashing temperaments, a skewering of European bourgeois pretense (“I like countries with a middle class,” says the wife of a company’s managing CEO), and commentary on the soul-sucking nature of corporate culture, yet it still registers as entertainment (something of a dirty word in the arthouse scene) of the highest order. It’s been called a “three-hour comedy,” but even that isn’t quite accurate; it actually clocks in at 162 minutes and isn’t exactly all comedic. To be sure, Toni Erdmann is frequently and consistently uproarious—in fact, it’s one of the funniest films of the decade. (During this writer’s screening, it even received a rare bout of mid-film applause.) But it’s Ade and her two superb leads’ efforts at dissecting the nuances of this central relationship that elevates the film and allows it to expertly alternate between absurd comedy and bracing pathos, all the while maintaining its improbable thematic and emotional resonance. It’s not every movie that can do either of these well; rare indeed is the one that can do both so expertly.