To call Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) an eccentric would be an understatement. Toni Erdmann opens with him answering the door to a postman, only to say he’ll fetch his ex-con brother to receive the package, which Winfried implies might be a bomb. He returns dressed differently to play the role of this fictional brother. The postman is more confused than amused, and there’s the sense that Winfried’s jokes are a bit sadly wanting.
That’s probably just what writer-director Maren Ade wants you to feel in her ambitious and poignant nearly 3-hour long comedy. The title comes from an alter ego Winfried creates during the course of the story. He’s a piano teacher in Germany. After his old dog Willi dies, Wilifried goes to visit his cold, distant workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) in Bucharest. Ines is a consultant on outsourcing for an oil company, but she really wants to leave Romania and move to Shanghai.
Work is stressing her out and having a goofy practical joker of a father showing up unannounced and hanging around her co-workers enhances that stress. On top of that, the passive aggressive oil company CEO Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn) insultingly hooks Ines up with his wife to guide her shopping in Bucharest. After Ines thinks with relief that her father has returned home, he shows up in an awful wig and ridiculous fake teeth as “Toni Erdmann,” who is a public speaking coach or a friend of Ion Tiriac’s or the German ambassador to Romania as per his whimsy.
Perhaps long used to such shenanigans or just to see how far her father will go, Ines decides to play along, purposefully putting her father in awkward situations along the way. But Winfried is not some quick-on-his-feet fast talker like Cary Grant or a cartoonish caricature like Jim Carrey might play. He’s just an old goofball driven by his love for Ines even as he has trouble understanding her.
The movie operates along several overly familiar tropes – the incredibly embarrassing friend/parent and the initially grave annoyance who unexpectedly changes life for the better. The former has been embodied by the likes of Anywhere But Here and Absolutely Fabulous while the latter is exemplified by What About Bob? and Bringing Down the House. Whereas those films mostly employ exaggeration and slapstick, Ade plays Toni Erdmann’s tone as naturalistic and it makes all the difference.
Ade makes plentiful use of uncomfortable silences and the film’s leisurely pacing is odd for a comedy. While the film is funny, there’s always a seriousness of purpose underlying it all. Winfried communicates with Ines in the only way he knows how, through practical jokes that infuriate her. Gradually though, she finds she can’t help but treat life as a joke with her father present. This leads to two of the greatest moments in the film or in any film this year. One involves, against all odds, Ines doing a rendition of Whitney Houston. The other, even better, is a set piece in which Ines tries to throw a birthday party for herself that goes bizarrely awry.
Simonischek is wonderful as Winfried in a simple yet layered performance. Huller though does the real heavy lifting in conveying the full spectrum of emotions to let the audience into someone who is not the most likeable woman. Ingrid Bisu shines as Ines’ assistant, playing the never quite perturbed straight woman to several jokes. Given the set up, Toni Erdmann is a movie that does go where you think it will, it just doesn’t do it in the way you’d expect it to, and that’s what makes it special.