To describe writer-director Maren Ade’s brilliantly funny and unpredictably moving “Toni Erdmann” in broad strokes is to make it sound like some hellish Robin Williams dramedy: goofy, middle-aged prankster Winifred (Peter Simonischek) sets off to Bucharest to surprise his straight-laced, businesswoman daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), but when she largely rebuffs him due to overwhelming work pressures, he dons a goofy wig and dentures and adopts the titular alter ego “Toni” to insinuate himself into her life. But what sounds on the page like “Patch Adams” for the festival set is played by Ade and her cast with such wonderfully deadpan particularity that it results in a truly scintillating cinematic experience, a delicate balance of humor, tension, and submerged emotion that seems ever in danger of either retreating into conventionality or crumbling under the weight of its own ambitions but which miraculously sustains its ability to keep escalating its comedic and emotional stakes without striking a single false note.
Of course, cinematic miracles are not the product of divine intervention but the result of hard work and careful planning. Ade spent years on this film, including almost two years writing the script, a year of shooting resulting in over 100 hours of film, and another year and a half of editing it all down to a robust but fat-free 162 minutes. If the runtime seems a bit lengthy for a film of this sort, it turns out to be absolutely essential, allowing us space and time to grow to understand these characters before running them through a succession of expertly conceived and impeccably executed comic set pieces. Ade has resisted classifying her film as a comedy, and even though the uproarious laughter that greeted the film at the screening I attended might suggest otherwise, she has a point. If comedy implies the imposition of a joke structure on reality, “Toni Erdmann” in many ways suggests the reverse: the sense that reality has, almost imperceptibly, warped itself into theatrical farce.
The key to the film is the tendentious father-daughter relationship at its center. The dynamic between the two has the timbre of an old vaudeville double act, with Winifred serving as an eccentric, overbearing foil to Ines’s perfectly deadpan straight (wo)man. Hüller’s performance is a masterpiece of Keatonesque stone-facing, using her eyes and gestures to suggest an uncanny unpredictability. We never seem to know quite what she’ll do, and, especially in the film’s climactic party sequence, we are regularly shocked by what she does do.
The film’s comedy arises out of an emotionally authentic tension between Winifred’s reflexively anti-status quo goofiness and his daughter’s anxious conformity, a contrast evident in their very faces, Winifred’s supremely goofy grin—frequently accentuated by custom-made dentures—offering sharp contrast to Ines’s perpetual look of pinched discomfort. These are two very different people who clearly love each other but who do not want to be anything like each other. It’s clear that Ines uses work as a defense mechanism to avoid relating to her dad—at one point she even pretends to be on the phone to avoid speaking to him—while Winifred employs his performative humor as both a barrier against difficult truths but also as his way of engaging.
Gradually, Winifred and Ines are able to meet each other on their own terms through a bizarre blending of Winifred’s outsized performance as “Toni” with various social situations necessitated by Ines’s work. But their reconciliation does not result in the sort of sweeping, now-things-are-all-better denouement usually demanded by Hollywood comedies. Instead, as Ade makes clear in the film’s unusually extended coda, what we have witnessed has brought Winifred and Ines closer together but only a bit. Life goes on, people don’t fundamentally change, but they can still share something important if they open themselves up to the possibilities around them.