Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann was optioned for a Hollywood remake several weeks ago, even before it has finished expanding its limited release here. (The German film premiered at Cannes last spring, where it received raves, and is currently an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film.) I’ll be curious to see how an American filmmaker handles this material, because I can think of very few who would be capable of doing so with the same deftness: it’s hard to imagine even a simpatico filmmaker like Alexander Payne managing it with such ease. By virtue of Ade’s formidable talents as a writer and director (and those of a uniformly excellent cast), this ingenious film is at once a sly and touching family drama, an outrageous screwball farce, a keen-eyed satire of corporate culture, and an off-hand social-problem picture about the costs of globalization. You’d probably have to go back to the 1930s to find another example of a comedy that seamlessly weaves together so many tones and ideas, and that wears them so lightly.
The film is set mostly in Bucharest, where the tightly wound, career-driven Ines (Sandra Hüller) has temporarily settled in order to do business with some Romanian oil tycoons. Enter Ines’ father Winfried (Peter Simonischek). He’s a big, shaggy bear of a man prone to practical jokes, but also given to moments of private contemplation that indicate a deep loneliness. Winfried has decided to surprise Ines with an unplanned visit, and he proceeds to haunt her office dressed in a black fright wig and a pair of false teeth, the guise of his alter ego “Toni Erdmann.” Sometimes Toni claims to be a German ambassador, sometimes a “consultant and coach,” but his real job entails trolling Ines, rattling her armored, corporatized persona in order to free her from its constraints. Or maybe he just wants to make her laugh. (Their dynamic—that of the straight wo/man and the free spirit, will be recognizable to anyone familiar with Hollywood comedies of the last eighty years—or with stage comedies of the last two millennia.)
Shocked, embarrassed, and a little terrified, Ines takes the path of least resistance and decides to play along with her father’s games. Then, much to her horror, “Toni” begins to use his off-beat charms to insinuate himself within Ines’ professional circle, like a goofier, less predatory version of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley: he greets her colleagues by name, joins them at seminars and mixers, tags along on outings to the local clubs. Thus a series of increasingly bizarre comic adventures is set into motion, as Winfried wears down Ines’ defenses, ultimately inspiring her to embrace his spirit of playfulness and spontaneity, however grudgingly.
Having seen (and largely forgotten) Ade’s previous feature, 2009’s Everyone Else, I wasn’t prepared for the sucker-punch that Toni Erdmann delivers. Nor was I prepared for the certainty of purpose that Ade shows in balancing broad physical comedy with earnest, heartfelt pathos. It’s the kind of tone that Hollywood and Indiewood comedies are almost always trying to strike, with no little effort and to varying degrees of success (think Up in the Air, The Kids Are All Right, Win Win, Nebraska, or 20th Century Women, to name only five examples from recent years). Ade not only does it masterfully in Toni Erdmann, she makes it look easy, sliding in and out of different emotional registers naturally and almost imperceptibly. It’s the rare kind of movie that doesn’t make you embarrassed for laughing or crying, because never for a second do you get the feeling that Ade is trying to play the audience for suckers. Everything that’s funny and touching about the film, right down to its quietly heartbreaking final shot, arises and converges with an effortlessness and a cock-eyed warmth that suggests the work of such masters as Altman, Sturges, and Lubitsch—and Renoir, the patron saint of all humanist filmmakers. With Toni Erdmann Ade joins the ranks of these formidable predecessors. In the world of Toni and his gags, life is a comedy so sad it can only be laughed at.