Rated R: 162 minutes
Three stars out of four
"Toni Erdmann" is a hard film to love, but that might be the point. The German movie from the clearly talented and incisive writer/director Maren Ade seems like it should be a comedy — the lightly plotted character study is about a father trying to introduce some chaos into his adult daughter's overworked life — but it's far too cutting and uncomfortable to generate much joy.
It all hinges on how you view the father, Winifried, played by actor Peter Simonischek. Winifried is a hearty-looking man, likely in his 60s, who has a mop of unruly gray hair and a penchant for what might generously be described as pranks. He keeps a set of fake teeth in his shirt pocket which he'll pop in from time to time when he wants to take on one of his personas. He'll do this with delivery people, strangers, his mother and his extended family. But those on the receiving end never seem all that amused by Winifried's antics. Strangers don't quite know what to do with him, and his family just kind of disregards his oddities through clenched teeth. Both kinds of interactions can be almost painful to watch and even after two viewings I can't get a handle on how the movie wants us to see him, especially once he decides to concentrate all of his efforts on his 30-something daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller).
After seeing Ines, serious, stressed and tethered to her phone at a family gathering, Winifried decides to surprise her with a visit to Bucharest, where her consulting job has stranded her recently. He waits for Ines in the lobby of an office building, and when she walks in with clients, he pops in the teeth and puts on a pair of sunglasses and walks up close to the group of business people. Ines doesn't break her stride, going right into the elevator complex. Did she see him? Did she not? It turns out she did, she just chose to ignore him. Her assistant runs out soon after to catch Winifried and say hello on behalf of her boss and invite him to a reception later that day. You can probably guess how that goes.
These two might as well be strangers, and Winified's presence is a disruptive one in Ines' highly structured life. As he tries harder to get her to lighten up, she seems to get even more tense and stressed.
Eventually Winifried tells Ines he's leaving, only to come back and surprise her once more, this time as Toni Erdmann — fake teeth, crazy black wig and all. He tells one of her co-workers that he's a life coach. He tells a woman at a party that he's the German ambassador. And Toni becomes Ines' companion, from the club to the countryside and at the random places he gets invited to.
The everyday relationship between adult parents and their adult children is one the movies don't often explore, unless there's some reason for everyone to be together — an illness, a death, a fraught holiday. It's refreshing to just have that reality be the basis for a character study, minus the tragedy, and clocking in at 162 minutes "Toni Erdmann" certainly gives this experiment room to breathe, and then some. And there's a freedom in going through this ordeal with two actors whom most American audiences don't know. But, goodness, can it be difficult to embrace most of the time.
And yet, amid all the discomfort, there are two genuinely transcendent sequences that close out the movie. One involves Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" and the other, a final, legitimately hysterical release for Ines. What it all amounts to is for the individual to decide. The revelations aren't big, but "Toni Erdmann" is not that kind of movie.