‘Toni Erdmann’ Cannes Review: Spectacular Father-Daughter Comedy Knocks the Festival for a Loop

In a festival whose films often deal in shades of darkness, this delightful blast of exuberance is also deeply touching

Toni Erdmann
"Toni Erdmann"

So far at the Cannes Film Festival, we’ve seen the movie where a guy finds a way to combine sodomy and euthanasia (“Staying Vertical”), and the comedy about things like cannibalism and incest (“Slack Bay”), and Julia Roberts and George Clooney walking the same red carpet as unknown Romanians.

But then, on Friday night in the Salle Debussy theater, along came Maren Ade’s spectacular “Toni Erdmann” to send a message:

You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The most delightful surprise of the festival so far, German director Ade has made a generous, hysterically funny but deeply touching father-daughter story that lasts for two hours and 42 minutes but doesn’t waste a moment and doesn’t feel anywhere near that long.

At a festival full of bold, messy films that make you want to give them the benefit of the doubt, this one is a knockout that doesn’t need any allowances.

A veteran of only two previous films, Ade is one of three women in the 21-film main competition, the same as last year and more than most previous years. (The other two are Nicole Garcia with “Mal de Pierres” and Andrea Arnold with “American Honey.”) Hers was the first of the three to screen, and Garcia, Arnold and all their male competitors now have a tough act to follow.

The film is about a free-spirited father who’s dismayed by the corporate lifestyle adapted by his grown daughter; to loosen her up and find out if she can rediscover her sense of humor, he adopts the character of a loutish con man named Toni Erdmann and throws a series of monkey wrenches into her high-pressure business life.

Sandra Hüller plays the daughter, Peter Simonischek the father, and they both have to be strong contenders for Cannes acting honors — particularly Hüller, who’s certainly the leader in the clubhouse for the best-actress award.

She and Simonischek both let us see the sadness that lurks just beneath their controlled and carefree facades, respectively, and both almost immediately give us a relationship that feels real, lived in and fraught with memories both joyful and painful.

For a while you might start to wonder why Hüller’s character would even allow her rampaging jokester of a father back into her work environment, but the final stretch of the film is such a genuine pleasure that you wouldn’t have it any other way.

And the payoffs are glorious, starting with Hüller performing Whitney Houston‘s “The Greatest Love of All” with such unnerving gusto in the middle of an Orthodox egg-painting party in Budapest that the Cannes audience burst into spontaneous applause in the middle of the song.

A few minutes later, Ade and Hüller topped themselves with a birthday brunch that began as a virtuoso piece of physical comedy involving a too-tight cocktail dress, and ended up as an impromptu all-nude brunch (for “team building,” you understand) that was crashed by dad, all dressed up as an eight-foot, hairy creature of indeterminate species.

The scene was hysterically funny, then very uncomfortable, then downright tragic, then hysterical again; in a festival whose films often deal in shades of darkness, it was a delightful blast of exuberance that also managed to be deeply touching.

So is all of “Toni Erdmann.” With two screenings on Friday night in advance of its official premiere on Saturday, this is now the Cannes movie you’ve got to see.