German writer-director Maren Ade’s last film was the audacious, masterful romantic drama Everyone Else, which pitilessly examined a young couple’s slow realization that maybe they shouldn’t be together. Her latest is also about a kind of breakup, in two ways: Toni Erdmann tells the story of a father and his distant daughter negotiating the reality of their severed bond—but it’s also about Ade crafting a moving, perceptive, human character piece and then provocatively shifting course halfway through the film, daring her audience to stay onboard as she travels in a much more challenging direction. Toni Erdmann never regains its equilibrium afterward—only after some reflection does it seem apparent that equilibrium was never what Ade was after anyway.
Peter Simonischek plays Winfried, an older German man, one of those guys who finds his own sense of humor so endlessly delightful no one else need bother. As the film opens, he’s pranking a deliveryman, making the guy think he’s holding a package with a bomb—and if that joke seems pretty shtick-y, well, Winfried has dozens more like it. You know the type: fun for about five minutes, but then excruciating to be around.
Taking to wearing false teeth for a laugh, Winfried visits his ex-wife and discovers that their adult daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is in town. Living off in Bucharest, Ines is a consultant for a company that is considering outsourcing many of its jobs overseas—an unpopular but prudent business decision that people like Ines are hired to suggest so that the company’s bosses can blame her rather than taking responsibility themselves. Tightly wound and under a lot of pressure, Ines doesn’t have much time for her father, who notices how disconnected the two of them are. And so, he takes it upon himself to visit her in Bucharest, insinuating himself into her life.
From that setup, perhaps you imagine Toni Erdmann is a playful generational comedy in which freewheeling Dad and no-fun Ines initially clash before ultimately teaching each other some heartwarming lessons about the importance of family and appreciating life. What’s so striking about this film is that Ade both rejects those niceties and, in her own odd way, explores them. But Toni Erdmann is the opposite of a feel-good drama—and it becomes even more so as it moves along, the film clocking in at over two-and-a-half-hours long. From its earliest moments, the movie is prickly, awake and more than a little feisty. After establishing a familiar, even conventional premise, Ade wants to see how far you’re willing to go out on a limb with her.
Once the scene shifts to Bucharest, Toni Erdmann becomes an exceedingly accomplished mixture of workplace drama and character piece, as Ines and Winfried try to coexist, which proves increasingly difficult when she has to drag her uncouth, jokey father around during an important business event in which she needs to impress some bigwigs. It’s cringe comedy with none of the mannerisms and a painful amount of truth: He may be embarrassing her, but her own professional insecurities can be just as debilitating, her no-nonsense façade quickly fading after she says the wrong thing at the worst moment.
During the film’s first half, Ade perceptively examines how adult children can see their childhood selves—especially all those adolescent anxieties and failings—reflected back at them through their parents’ gaze. Likewise, a parent sees in his child so many elements of himself, producing an endless push-pull of pride and discomfort at recognizing one’s own attributes and weaknesses walking around in a person you helped create. Toni Erdmann is achingly insightful, and yet the scenes between Ines and Winfried are so lifelike and understated that its grander themes seem to be merely floating in the air, waiting for you to grab them if you so desire.
After their weekend together, Ines says goodbye to her dad, culminating in a moment that feels incredibly universal and, at the same time, never articulated in quite the way this film does. For most any other movie, it would be a fitting finale, but Toni Erdmann still has far to go. Ines tries to pull herself together and resume her life, but during a night out with some friends, she’s stunned to find her dad at the same restaurant, wearing his trademark wig-and-fake-teeth disguise that he uses for his pranks. Introducing himself as Toni Erdmann to her friends, he carries on as if Ines is just some associate of his, never acknowledging she’s his daughter. Because she’d just been badmouthing her dad to her friends, Ines says nothing, probably mostly out of guilt. But soon she realizes that “Toni” plans to stick around, hanging out with her coworkers in subsequent days and acting as if he’s a high-profile life coach.
From this point on, Toni Erdmann abandons its neat, logical structure and takes a turn toward the surreal, the cutesy and the decidedly difficult. What began as drama morphs into farce as Ines has to play along with Toni’s deception. (After all, by not contradicting her father’s lies immediately, she’s then hard-pressed to change her story once he becomes more integral to her professional and personal life in Bucharest—that would just make her look bad, not him.) Ade plays the absurdity with utter realism, drawing shocked laughs from the escalation of Winfried’s mysterious plan. Is he trying to sabotage his daughter’s life? Is he wanting to get closer to her? Is he trying to teach her some profound life lesson in the weirdest way possible? Or has he simply gone insane?
Those questions power Toni Erdmann’s uneven second half, and it’s hard to recall a recent movie whose sheer gutsiness becomes its best virtue, independent of the execution. There are many things that don’t work in this film, and yet Ade’s stubborn insistence that they will—or that they’re building to a point she’ll eventually make—is undeniably thrilling. The movie starts to slip into an almost dreamlike state in which it’s hard to understand why certain things happen—the naked brunch will be talked about and debated for some time—but Ade holds it together through sheer confidence and filmmaking skill.
Her leads are enormously helpful as well. Hüller plays Ines as a chilly woman who’s learned she has to be a bit frigid in order to impress the men for whom she works. But the actress keeps revealing other sides to this character’s personality, leaving room for nuance and mystery in this closed-off character. Simonischek has the more gregarious role, but it’s tricky in its own way. Winfried is a fool and a bit of a loser, but Simonischek never tries to convince us that he’s got some hidden wisdom about the complexities of life. He is simply one of those forces of nature one has to deal with—especially when it’s in your own family. Along the way, Toni Erdmann detonates the typical father-daughter drama, Ade and her cast adventurously trying to put back the pieces into an exciting new whole. You’ll see the imperfections in this mosaic, but it’s still a wonder to look at.
Director: Maren Ade
Writer: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.