Toni Erdmann does not exist. He’s a character assumed by Winfried (Peter Simonischek), an aging German father, constructed for the sole purpose of re-establishing contact with his distant, driven, careerist daughter, Ines (Sandra Huller).
At the beginning of “Toni Erdmann,” we meet Winfried-as-Toni pranking a delivery person. He wears a strange harness while accepting a package he happily describes as a mail bomb. Later Toni will assume the fake job of life coach, a wildly tangled Tommy Wiseau-vian wig perched on his head, jacked-up joke teeth in his mouth, whoopee cushion at the ready in case the situation calls for artfully positioned farts.
Winfried takes his Toni act on the road to Bucharest, where Ines works as a corporate consultant. His spontaneous, inconvenient arrival is partly spurred by the death of his dog and impending retirement from his job as a music teacher, though primarily by his sense of growing estrangement from Ines, who has become altogether much too serious.
Ines is a dutiful piston in the engine of market globalism, her soul-killing function advising companies where to cut labor costs to satisfy shareholders. In professional practice and personal aesthetic, she is Austerity. Her corporate apartment is a plain white blank; her dealings with clients are no-nonsense. Not that she has a lot of choice. Dad may have come up a hippie in late 20th century Europe, but those days are over. For her hard work, she’s often disputed, sometimes ignored, and occasionally treated to the blatant misogyny of the businessmen who outnumber her.
Brazenly inserting himself directly into meetings with Ines’s clients, Toni leaves a human trail of befuddlement. Nobody really believes his stories, but they can’t stop staring at that wig. Silently indulged by Ines’ friends and co-workers, occasionally even considered weirdly charming, Toni hovers, sneaks up on, pivots unpredictably, and places obstacles directly into his daughter’s path. When that doesn’t work, there’s outright confrontation. “Are you even a human being?” Winfried, now out of character, asks her. The question is a quiet one, but you can feel the sting.
Ines, for her part, is reasonably unfazed by this. She’s met Toni before, and it’s a certainty that she was once a willing accomplice to her father’s pranks, fully aware of his propensity for the kind of deliberately mortifying behavior that parents often use to shake up their children for one reason or another. When he infiltrates her work life, she doesn’t flinch, but she wants him gone. Until she doesn’t, of course, and joins him in an epic karaoke moment while he pretends to be the German ambassador. Ines is complicated.
Writer-director Maren Ade’s third feature (after “The Forest for The Trees” in 2003 and 2009’s “Everybody Else”), “Toni Erdmann” is a thoroughly confident and impeccably executed comedy of oddball family functionality. Directed with a grace and intimacy that rejects showy stylistic moves in favor of a dry, affectless camera presence, the film understands human contradiction, the idea of wanting and not wanting at the same time.
A comedy with just as many moments of sadness, disaffection and humiliation as there are laughs, the film never shies away from awkward human strangeness. This is how it sticks, and sticks the ending, as the narrative ramps up to a sequence involving a birthday brunch with very unexpected costume changes.
Ade digs deeply into the always-there, low-grade ache of loneliness, fear of abandonment, and longing for home that can inform even the happiest of families. She gets that it’s somewhat unfair for this father to treat his daughter like a prop in a Gallagher show, expecting her to conform to a freewheeling worldview informed by the progressive politics of the past, when Ines has few options but to keep swimming with money-eating sharks.
But in the end, Ade’s witness, for 162 minutes (that fly by), is one of empathy for both halves of this whole: for Ines’s permanent state of embarrassment and her longing to join in her father’s freakout, and for Winfried’s increasingly bizarre antics and gentle, lonely chiding. Ade makes up Toni like making a wish for a unified practice of family life, one that privileges confusion and tenderness, loving acceptance and the rattle of fake fart noise.