Delving into microeconomics and macroaggressions, Toni Erdmann, the dynamite, superbly acted third feature by writer-director Maren Ade, is social studies at its finest. This quicksilver, emotionally astute comedy operates in many different registers and moods: Whoopee cushions and gag teeth are part of the fun, but so too is a piquant dissection of father-daughter bonds and of the sinister banality of corporate consultancy. In the filmmaker’s no-nonsense humanism, mortification motors the plot so that a modicum of dignity can be restored.
Like Ade’s previous film, Everyone Else (2009), which traces the expanding fault lines in the relationship of a vacationing couple, Toni Erdmann remains constantly absorbing through its precise examination of even the most mundane interactions. The film opens, in fact, with one of those seemingly humdrum exchanges: the delivery of a package. The recipient, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a rumpled, teddy-bearish, snowy-haired music teacher, bewilders the courier at his doorstep by insisting the parcel is for “Toni”; he then disappears into the house for a few seconds only to return as his joker alter ego, sporting ridiculous fake choppers and cracking wise about mail bombs. (In an interview with Manohla Dargis of The New York Times at the Cannes Film Festival, where Toni Erdmann premiered, Ade explained that her title character’s first name is a salute to Tony Clifton, the insult-comic incarnation of Andy Kaufman.)
Winfried, it seems, is always clowning — and just as often annoying those he hopes to delight. His antics, like wearing ghoulish makeup, work best on his pupils, grade-school kids who, perhaps out of deference to or love for their kooky teacher, have also slathered themselves with similar KISS-type maquillage. But the big guy keeps the face paint on even when paying a visit to his wizened mother — who shoots him uncomprehending, hostile and increasingly hilarious looks — and when arriving at his ex-wife’s house for a party to celebrate the fact that their only child, Ines (Sandra Hüller), a careerist corporate strategist currently based in Bucharest, is back home in Germany for a few days.
“She’s always on the phone,” more than one guest says at this small gathering, patiently, almost helplessly waiting for Ines — pacing the backyard in her unvarying work uniform of pantsuit and silk shirt while on a call — to come back inside. Her behavior is haughty, hostile, a strategy of distraction deployed to forestall having to interact with her father, whom she loves but has little patience for.
That filial rift deepens when Winfried decides to pay a surprise visit to his daughter, waiting for hours in the lobby of her office building in the Romanian capital, just so he can insert those ridiculous teeth and put on goofy sunglasses when he sees Ines enter, flanked by male colleagues, in high-executive mode. Aghast at the sight of her dopey dad, she pretends she doesn’t see him — an act that’s as much a mask and performance as Winfried’s.
Ade pays particular attention to the dissimulation required of Ines, who must assume cheery solicitude even as she’s confronted with casual sexism, forcing a smile when a CEO she’s hoping to impress asks her to take his wife shopping. Sitting in baggy, ill-fitting jeans on a banquette, Winfried (“I’m only the father, here on holidays”) witnesses some of his daughter's self-abnegating acts at a hotel bar where Ines must participate in mandatory, mind-numbing late-hour socializing; nearly every one of her replies is some variation of “I totally agree with you.” Back at Ines’ spacious, sterile apartment, Winfried asks if she’s happy. “Lots of words buzzing around here: fun, life, happiness,” she responds tartly, scoffing at what she considers her father’s vague, foolishly idealistic vocabulary.
But Ines’ lexicon is clotted with vapidities of another kind, corporate-speak untranslated from English — the lingua franca of neoliberalism — in discussions otherwise conducted in German (or occasionally Romanian): performance, outsourcing, steering committee, comfort zone. Ade’s film brilliantly lays bare so much about communication, about language (verbal and nonverbal) and its uses and abuses. Unhurried but exacting, Toni Erdmann’s scenes show us the moments too often stripped away in movies, like the pauses and hesitations in conversations that form the crux of the indignities Ines suffers — and inflicts — in her daily life.
Although most of the humor in Toni Erdmann is subtle (yet always blade-sharp), the film features a few exhilarating screwball set pieces, including one that, just as in Everyone Else, reveals Ade’s impeccable instinct for exploiting 1980s mega-ballads to both advance the story and wryly comment on it. By the time Ines and her father perform their cover of a Whitney Houston anthem, Winfried has concocted an even more outlandish disguise and biography for his mischievous shadow self, fully invading his daughter’s life by passing himself off as a “freelance coach.”
Ines soon engages in some anarchic behavior of her own; the divide between parent and child is never wholly bridged, but they do become co-conspirators of a sort. Their entente is signaled by Ines reaching into Papa’s shirt pocket to grab those silly fangs — a suitable motif for a film that never loses its bite.