Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

German Comedy ‘Toni Erdmann’ Achieves Legitimate Filmic Madness

A goofy father saves his daughter from corporate drudgery by dressing up as a jet-setting life coach.

Movie comedy lacks a wild streak. We get funny films occasionally, and certainly there are performers who can get nutsy in short spurts—as Melissa McCarthy’s instant-classic White House press-briefing sketch on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live proved. But the storytelling in most comedies now is tame and tidy, or merely a framework in which comedians can improvise. It’s so rare that a modern comedy takes off in the style of a His Girl Friday or Some Like It Hot, where the story devices accelerate and the whole thing goes aloft in a dizzying and demented trajectory. Silver Linings Playbook is a notable recent example of that kind of glorious madness.

The German film Toni Erdmann, Oscar-nominated in this year’s Best Foreign Language category, is a true wild one. It doesn’t achieve craziness in the rocketing manner of a Hollywood screwball comedy, but by its own slowly zany method. At its core, it has a fairly simple outline: A career woman has sacrificed her soul for professional achievement, and her shaggy bohemian father re-enters her life just in time to save her from the curse of material success. That could be a Hollywood film, and in fact there’s talk that an English-language remake is already underway. That film, if it happens, will be very different from this kooky, dawdling movie.

We first meet the father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a grade-school teacher on the verge of involuntary retirement. In a skillful set of opening scenes, we see he’s an inveterate joker, whether with strangers or his tolerant family. With a set of gag teeth and a fright wig, he can transform himself into “Toni Erdmann,” a vaguely jet-setting life coach. His daughter is Ines (Sandra Hüller), who seems content to keep her distance. She lives in Bucharest, where she works for one of those corporations that don’t seem to do anything except step in and advise how to fire other corporations’ employees.

Winfried goes to Bucharest to hang around and be Toni Erdmann and possibly rescue Ines from moving up the ladder. How this plays out is never remotely predictable: There are funny scenes, dramatic ones, and a couple of sexually kinky moments. We feel Ines’ horror as her dad shows up at social engagements and corporate meetings, but—even though Hüller’s wonderfully deadpan performance doesn’t give much away—we might also feel the lure of capriciousness he embodies. In some scenes, Ines is practically forced to slide into his mode, introducing him around as Toni Erdmann because it would just be too awkward to explain why her father is such a goof. In those scenes, life becomes theater, an ongoing masquerade that looks a lot more fun than the grown-up business of maximizing profit margins and exploiting the little guy.

Writer/director Maren Ade lets this unfold in a nondescript style, following her characters around with a handheld camera and letting scenes develop into full-blown weirdness. That explains the film’s 162-minute running time, which should be far too long for a comedy but is, mysteriously, just the amount of time we need to believe this meandering story. This length means the humor can evolve in an organic way, so that by the time we see Ines doing pitched battle with her cocktail dress—she’s giving a team-building party for co-workers at her apartment—her frustration will make the resulting uproarious scene seem like a natural outgrowth of the previous two hours of film.

There are many laughs along the way, and sadness underneath. At its best, Toni Erdmann becomes something more than funny—exhilarating, really, in summoning up the possibilities that chaos might occasionally offer. One scene—it comes out of nowhere—has Ines forced into singing a pop song at a birthday party (Toni Erdmann is there, at the piano, goading her on). Something wonderful gets loose in scenes like this, not just because the ideas are silly and the actors fully committed, but because Ade lets us glimpse how people might adapt, and meet the moment. That’s the very human point behind this movie. Toni Erdmann, Rated R. Opens Fri., Feb. 10 at at Seven Gables and SIFF Uptown. film@seattleweekly.com

More in Film

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.

Taron Egerton (Robin) and Jamie Foxx (John) take another crack at the classic in Robin Hood. Photo by Larry Horricks
The Arrows Miss Their Mark in ‘Robin Hood’

The legend’s latest rendition can’t overcome its modern smirky tone and bland lead actor.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. 
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Stellar Acting Makes ‘Green Book’ A Smooth Ride

Despite its cornball touches, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen shine as a 1960s jazz pianist and his hired muscle.

Image by Drew Struzan/Disney
Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

Get in the festive spirit at home with these beloved seasonal films.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.

Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Photo courtesy Netflix
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Wagon Train of Dark Mischief

The Coen brothers’ new anthology seves as a glorious ode to Westerns’ dusty death.

At times, the actors in Outlaw King are hard to tell apart under the mud, furs, 
and filthy mullets. Courtesy Netflix
Coming for the Throne

‘Outlaw King,’ the Chris Pine-led 14th century epic about the First War of Scottish Independence, signals Netflix’s attempt to conquer the Oscars.

Big-screen Queen via Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
Not Quite A Killer Queen

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ hits some musical high notes, but the Queen biopic largely plays it too safe.

Screaming and Streaming

A selection of the best horror movies you can stream at home this Halloween.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) returns to once again square off with Michael Myers in the new ‘Halloween.’ Photo by Ryan Green/Universal Studios
Still Killin’ It

Michael Myers has been coming home for decades now, ever since he… Continue reading