‘Toni Erdmann” is a wild ride, not least because of the internal dips and turns experienced by viewers as they take the measure of its title character.
A big, hirsute bear of a man, Toni, as we first encounter him, is a passive-aggressive mind game in human form, using sarcasm and a series of disguises to keep everyone around him off-balance. Pushing people he meets to the brink of confusion and discomfort, he’s just as hard on an audience that, throughout this shaggy but ultimately winning movie, may not be able to decide whether he’s an insufferable bully or a Panglossian figure of childlike innocence.
The calculation is made all the more difficult by the fact that Toni isn’t exactly real. He’s the alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who as the movie opens is making tasteless jokes about mail bombs to a deliveryman. When he’s visited by his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), who has a high-ranking corporate job with an outsourcing company, it’s immediately clear that his devil-may-care spontaneity is fatally at odds with her task-oriented seriousness.
Noting that she’s constantly on the phone, he tells her that he’s decided to hire a substitute daughter. Schooled in giving as good as she gets, Ines registers her pleasure, noting that someone else can finally take over calling him on his birthday.
And so goes the teasing, tart banter of a father and daughter whose relationship will be put to the ultimate test when Winfried decides to barge into Ines’s carefully managed life, donning a wig and a set of outrageously ugly false teeth to assume the persona of a stranger named Toni Erdmann. An expert monkeywrencher, he proceeds to invade her space whenever possible, whether at an important embassy reception or a get-together with friends over drinks. Flashing his appalling dentures, he announces that he’s a consultant with the International Dental Design Clinic, which – here’s the punch line – is run by “an Italian architect.”
Anyone who already has their back up, suspecting yet another cliched story about a fun-loving dad who cures his careerist daughter of her workaholic ways to find love, laughter and true happiness can rest assured. Admittedly, it’s not always clear where Maren Ade, who wrote and directed “Toni Erdmann,” stands on Winfried’s antics. Although it’s obvious that his pranks and gibes have a hostile edge, the filmmaker keeps giving him the benefit of the doubt, at one point literally making him more warm and cuddly by dressing him in a tribal costume that resembles Cousin Itt on steroids.
Still, Toni quickly grows as tiresome for spectators as he does for the long-suffering daughter he continually undermines in the name of making a deeper connection. At two hours and 40 minutes, the film sags and bags unnecessarily, especially when it tacks on an epilogue that feels gratuitous and too obvious.
But the movie is worth its sloggiest moments – and its frequently off-putting title character – for Hüller’s fearless performance, which is a revelation of pathos, humor and keen, sharp-eyed focus. Throughout “Toni Erdmann,” Ines grows steadily more sympathetic as she navigates the emotional and psychological mixed messages of her dad, as well as sexist politics at work.
It all builds to two absurdist, utterly unforgettable party scenes that defy description other than to say that they’re both mini-masterpieces of imagination, staging and actorly brio. (The first one is so sensational and unexpected that, when the film first screened for critics at the Cannes Film Festival in May, that notoriously tough room broke into approving whoops and applause.)
“Toni Erdmann,” it turns out, is Hüller’s movie all the way, with her character not just matching wits with the bumptious, often irritating father, but ultimately coming into her own with the genuine feeling he seems determined to deflect. She triumphs, not because of funny costumes or fakery, but precisely because she has the courage to drop them. She’s the real thing – strong, vulnerable, flawed and supremely self-possessed – and she’s magnificent.
Three and one-half stars. Rated R. Contains strong sexual material, graphic nudity, obscenity and brief drug use. In English and German with subtitles.162 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.