Every family is its own country with culture and customs and embarrassments that seem alien beyond its borders, but the genius of Maren Ade‘s brilliantly funny and slyly crushing “Toni Erdmann” is that it makes the utterly foreign nation of its central father/daughter relationship feel so much like home. Dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek) and daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) are, I guarantee you, nothing at all like you — they are not like anyone but themselves even when they’re pretending to be other people — and yet the covalent bond between them feels like the essence of everything that has ever existed between a grown-up child and an aging parent. Every instance of benign neglect, every eyeroll of annoyance, every mortification, every unanswered phonecall, every private joke and every gesture of love, spontaneous or premeditated, has its analog here. This is the finest seesawing ode to fatherhood and filial affection ever to feature a fart cushion. This is Ozu sporting Groucho glasses.
Winfried, an unkempt shaggy bear of a music teacher, devoted to his ancient dog and cordially divorced from his wife, doesn’t see much of his daughter Ines anymore. She is living in Bucharest, though hoping for a new posting to Asia, working a stress-inducing job in a high-powered consultancy firm. When his beloved dog dies, Winfried takes Ines’ casual invitation at its word and visits her in Bucharest for a weekend of serial disappointments and cancelled dates as she tries, not terribly hard, to conceal her impatience and embarrassment about him, from him. Because, you see, Winfried, as he confesses in a crestfallen voice to a table of Ines’ most important clients, likes “to make jokes.” All his shirts have a breast pocket — storage for a set of fake buck teeth which he’s inordinately fond of popping into his mouth at any juncture. Winfried tells vastly complex lies to parcel delivery men and shows up at parties wearing face paint — the benevolence of his pranks doesn’t do much to offset the suspicion that they’re a defence mechanism against some great loneliness or some great fear, and meantime everyone around him is subject to the tyranny of his good humor.
Ines, for her part is so busy achieving she perhaps doesn’t realize how miserable she is until her father’s untimely visit and a slip of the tongue over drinks makes it manifest. Waving goodbye after a strained parting once his weekend vacation is over, she bursts into tears. But Winfried doesn’t leave. Instead in one of the most idiotic, cockamamie and oddly heartbreaking demonstrations of inarticulate paternal love imaginable, he stays in Bucharest unbeknownst to Ines, affects a terrible wig, slips in his trusty dentures and introduces himself to his daughter and her friends as they hang out at a bar, as Toni Erdmann. Toni is a life coach, an important businessman, the German ambassador, or sometimes an eight foot-tall Bulgarian folk monster reputed to ward off evil spirits and made entirely of hair. That a shocked Ines goes along with the first of these deceptions is the first real signal we have that there might be hope for her yet.
Get ready to retract every cliche joke you’ve ever made about Germans and their sense of humor — “Toni Erdmann” suggests that perhaps they’ve simply been operating on a higher level of joke all along. The film is ridiculously funny at times, but the funny comes from the same place as the sad — these two wonderful characters, played faultlessly by Simonsichek and Hüller. And even the smallest performances are slivers of perfection, from the goggling package delivery guy to the rube who offers Toni the use of his toilet, to the gracious and sympathetic socialite lady whose Easter party “Ambassador” Erdmann and his assistant Miss Schnuck (an unwilling Ines) gatecrash. That scene, incidentally, culminates in Ines’ impromptu recital of Whitney Houston‘s “The Greatest Love Of All,” a sequence so utterly transcendent and hilarious that as it was happening the Cannes press screening audience spontaneously burst into applause and cheers. Twice.
Overcoming not one but two historical biases in Cannes Competition programming lore — being German and being a woman — Ade’s film is only her third feature after “The Forest For The Trees” (which was actually her graduation piece from film school) and 2009’s terrific, not widely seen “Everyone Else.” Both those films revealed the precision of her approach, the sureness of her control, and a before-her-years understanding of how, if you look at any ordinary thing carefully enough, there is no such thing as “ordinary.” But “Toni Erdmann” operates on a different and more complex level than those previous minutely observed, tightly choreographed psychodramas. It is messier, it is truer and it is not afraid to take its time. At 2 hours and 43 minutes, a little too much time, to be sure, especially during the middle third which lags a little, and toward the close when the film continues to end for a fair while after it’s ended. But never has a movie’s overlength been so easy to instantly and wholeheartedly forgive.
We lack female directors of every stripe, but what we really lack are female visionaries. This film, despite unshowy photography and a dialed-down style, is so singular, and so uniquely Ade’s that it heralds her confirmation as one such. Because on top of everything else, “Toni Erdmann” is wise: a summary lesson in acceptance of your family members, not just for who they are, but for who they made you into. Be thankful that that bunch of weirdos know you as well as they do: they might just be able to fix you. [A-]