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Things you’ll never be able to see in the same way after watching Toni Erdmann: petit fours, team-building exercises, Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” The nearly three-hour German comedy offers unique gags and comic set-pieces that linger in your memory long after the final credits roll, despite its terribly familiar premise. It’s a bit like one of those Hollywood movies about a straight-laced protagonist whose life gets upended when an eccentric, estranged relative comes to visit. First, there is tension, but eventually our hero ends up enlightened and enriched by their relative’s carefree attitude. Lessons are learned. Fun is had.
Toni Erdmann bears many similarities to those broad comedies, but its reach is far deeper. Ines (Sandra Hüller) is our buttoned-up hero, a thirty-something economic consultant living in Bucharest while handling an important client. Her life is upended when her father, Winifried (Peter Simonische) shows up unannounced, sporting false teeth and a mop-top wig and insisting that people call him Toni Erdmann. He’s a famous prankster, and Toni is his alter ego, but Ines isn’t in a laughing mood. While she wines and dines her client, Toni starts popping up everywhere, causing embarrassing scenes that threaten her carefully-cultivated career.
As played by Simonische with restrained merriment, Winifried is an indelible character of cinema, a middle-aged galoof who revels in the silliness of life. A coarser film would have reduced him to a stereotype, and indeed there are hints of the lame American style-comedy within. Raunchy moments and cringe humor abound. Toni’s favorite gag is a whoopee cushion. Ejaculate plays a memorable role. Crucially, however, director Marin Ade never mocks or sentimentalizes her characters. We know that Winifried has come to grandly rescue his daughter—from something—but such broad notions are never stated. Emotions are shown, not told, in a simple embrace or a quiet cry.
While your eye may be drawn to Toni and all of his comic eccentricity, you’ll hopefully find time to marvel at Hüller’s comic precision. When we meet her, Ines has convinced herself that she is one of the normal people, but she’s not. She is her father’s daughter, and over the course of Toni Erdmann’s long, demanding runtime, cracks begin to show. The pressure and subtle misogyny she feels at work—from her colleagues, supervisor, and clients—weigh on her, especially when her boss asks her to help his wife with her shopping. It is only a matter of time before her inner weirdo comes roaring out. Only a sadist would spoil the film’s hilarious climax, in which Ines either succumbs to her father’s winsome worldview or has a complete mental breakdown.
Despite its absurdity and silliness, Toni Erdmann has far more on its mind than bodily functions. The relationship between Ines and Winifried is a sharply-observed generational conflict. Ines takes advantage of the new world order by making her home in far-off places like Shanghai and Bucharest. Winifried stays home, caring for his aging mother. One values work, the other family. It makes their slow crawl toward reconciliation ever more poignant and its pleasure deeper than your usual German comedy—whatever that is. In all, Toni Erdmann is a delight, a masterpiece of subtlety, and a rich comedy of eras.
Toni Erdmann opens Friday at Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema.