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. firstname.lastname@example.org