A man shambles into the scene wearing joke-shop dentures and the tousled wig of a burnt-out 1980s rock star, calling himself Toni Erdmann. This title “character” doesn’t appear until over an hour into Maren Ade’s beguiling, off-kilter comedy, but by then we’ve already gotten to know him as Winfried, the melancholy prankster dad of our heroine, Ines.
Deftly played by Sandra Hüller, Ines is a workaholic, cutthroat business consultant, downsizing workers all across the new borderless economy. (When we first meet her she’s spending most of her birthday party outside on her cellphone.) Peter Simonischek plays Winfried with the sad-eyed shuffle of a man resigned to being self-amused since nobody else seems get his jokes anymore. Lonely and missing Ines, he kids about hiring a substitute daughter who has more time for her family. But instead he invents Toni Erdmann — an Andy Kaufman-esque alter ego who crashes her company’s buttoned-up bash in Bucharest before spending a few days at work with Ines.
The runaway critical favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Toni Erdmann” has been racking up international honors everywhere from the prestigious Sight & Sound Poll to that oft-contrarian gang at Cahiers du Cinema. An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, the movie also made the news last week when Jack Nicholson announced plans to emerge from his seven-year semi-retirement in order to star in an American remake alongside Kristen Wiig. While it’s difficult to picture more perfect casting, it’s also downright impossible to imagine a Hollywood version capturing the peculiar, extremely specific tone Ade pulls off here.
In retrospect it’s really no surprise that “Toni Erdmann” has gone over like gangbusters with cerebral types who don’t often have much use for comedies. At 162 minutes, the movie is the very definition of a slow-burner. “Toni Erdmann” isn’t long in that irritating way that Judd Apatow films never know when to end, but rather it’s the scenes themselves that luxuriantly stretch out before you. Ade favors unobtrusive camerawork and doesn’t punch up the jokes with excessive cutting or music cues, leaving the audience to find our own bearings in awkward social situations whenever the odd man with the funny hair and fake teeth wanders into frame.
It’s a comedy that works just as well as a drama, relying as it does on lengthy, gag-free stretches when we watch Ines in the office, cataloging the countless sexist digs from her boorish inferiors as she completes one soul-deadening assignment after another. Hüller excels at something extremely tricky here — allowing us see how much Ines hates her job but at the same time showing the satisfaction she gets from being so damn good at it. Meanwhile, prolonged exposure to her father is bringing out hints that Ines might be a little weirder than she comes across in boardrooms. It’s a deftly layered performance.
Simonischek exhibits a similar subtlety, allowing Toni’s silly costume to work against Winfred’s wounded, hangdog demeanor. The film even gets a little meta sometimes in its subverting of familiar comedic scenarios, as when he winds up handcuffed to his daughter before an important business meeting and loses the key — a hack trope lesser movies would milk for half-an-hour of antics — and the situation is immediately resolved a minute later without comment.
If the idea of a wild and crazy dad pulling shenanigans to loosen up the uptight offspring sounds familiar, perhaps you might be thinking of "That’s My Boy" — the profoundly tasteless 2012 romp in which Adam Sandler starred as a Somerville wastrel making life miserable for the stockbroker son (Andy Samberg) he named Han Solo. Co-starring James Caan, Todd Bridges and Vanilla Ice, the movie was the first of several box office bombs that helped exile the star to Netflix, yet there’s a small but proud coterie of critics who maintain that this intensely offensive, hard-R travesty is a diamond in the rough of Sandler’s exasperating career. (I’m guessing Maren Ade has seen it even more times than I have.)
Which isn’t to imply that “Toni Erdmann” owes much more beyond its concept to "That’s My Boy" — though the two might make an inspired double feature at The Brattle someday — particularly because Ade’s film eschews Sandler’s scattergun approach in favor of lighting a very, very long fuse. In all honestly, the fuse probably will be too long for a lot of less patient American viewers. But oh my goodness, when it blows.
“Toni Erdmann” climaxes with a comic set-piece so screamingly funny yet perfectly true to the characters, it’s not hyperbole to say that I was gasping for air and my sides were hurting afterwards. The sequence escalates with a logic that’s been laid out so expertly over the preceding two and a half hours, there’s an almost anarchic, cathartic release to it. The fact that it’s also deeply moving is what makes this so much more than just a comedy.