Director: Maren Ade
Stars: Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek
5 (out of 5) Globes
Bear with us while we sell you on the greatness of a near-three-hour German comedy that has the same plot as an Adam Sandler movie. In “Toni Erdmann,” an eccentric father named Winifried (Peter Simonischek) wreaks untold havoc on the life of his workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). That roughly describes the setup for the Sandler joint “That’s My Boy.” But anything can be a masterpiece if you do it right. (And to be honest, “Boy” is one of the least deplorable Sandlers.) As it were, “Toni Erdmann” boasts not only three of the year’s funniest set pieces but manages to be smart, insightful and even moving, if never saccharine.
And “Toni Erdmann” could have been very saccharine. The end goal for any movie about a tightwad forced to loosen up is that they do loosen up; the film closes with them smiling, having learned to slow down, laugh more, see the beauty in life. With “Toni Erdmann,” stuff’s more complicated. Huller’s Ines isn’t your typical office slave. She’s a rock star business consultant, excellent at her job — maybe too excellent. She’s the lone woman among alpha male sharks, and we can see the strain — and the pride — she has in working harder than she has to in order to excel. Her colleagues marvel at her prowess, even as they try to box her in. During a canoodling session with her colleague/sex friend (Trystan Putter), he lets slip that her bosses don’t want him stupping her too hard lest she “lose her bite.” He means it as dirty talk, and Ines casually absorbs it as just part of the game.
In comes dad to the rescue, of sorts. Winifried has never had his daughter’s towering ambitions. He’s a slovenly prankster, introduced punking a UPS guy with a joke about ordering mail-deliver bombs. He and Ines are semi-estranged, and when he abruptly shows up in Bucharest, where she’s presently stationed, she doesn’t know what to do with him. His awkward visit doesn’t last long, reaching a fever pitch when he asks her if she’s happy. Her curt retort upsets him.
So he returns, again unannounced, and this time as “Toni Erdmann”: a character he likes to play who’s alternately a Trumpian businessman or an ambassador — depending on who’s asking — and dressed in a bad, ’80s metal band wig and faker oversized teeth. At first horrified, and always enraged, Ines nevertheless plays along as he keeps crashing her office or parties and even apartment, babbling nonsense to colleagues, whipping out cheese graters and stirring up other forms of loopy trouble. (It’s telling of the film’s smarts that when they’re accidentally handcuffed together — oh, that comedy plot — she gets them untethered within a few screen minutes.)
There’s a good, if complicated, reason why this story needs 162 minutes to tell. “Toni Erdmann” isn’t always hilarious, but that’s on purpose. This is long-form comedy in the same general vibe as Andy Kaufman, where length and commitment and copious dry spells of unfuniness are key to key to being funny. Filmmaker Maren Ade (of the equally insightful/devastating relationship study “Everyone Else”) peppers her big set pieces and weirdo jokes conservatively, allowing long stretches of Ines at work: anxiously practicing speeches at home; tensely bartering with superiors; fake-calmly delivering pitches to clients. These scenes sound like they should cause eyes to glaze over, but Ade did her homework and they’re weirdly compelling. Then out of nowhere, Toni will pop up and some level of mayhem will ensue. Ade trains you how to watch her film: Soon you’ll scan shots of drab offices or bland work parties for the guy with the bad wig in the thrift store suit, ready for him to saunter up to Ines. The element of delay followed by surprise is a key component of why its peaks hit like laughter explosions.
The other benefit of Ade’s decision to make an epic, not a quickie yuk-fest, is you’ll grow more connected to its characters, even as you realize the film is not merely “moving.” “Toni Erdmann” very nimbly avoids being about a father who wants to save his daughter from emotional ruin. Instead, she merely discombobulates. Its two best set pieces involve the tightly-wound Ines shocking us and herself with sudden giddy outbursts. The first involves a truly leftfield fit of singing. (We wouldn’t dream of revealing the song.) The second is set during an office get-together that should have been staid but is the exact opposite. By the end, she hasn’t become some hippie layabout like her father; rather the contrary. Even with a big hug during its climax, we leave “Toni Erdmann” unable to say everything’s going to be OK. But hey, you did have some laughs along the way.