It's bad enough to grow up with a "cool" parent, but what if your dad's the cool teacher? You know, the one who's game to dress up and play along with just about anything to keep the kids engaged. The one who carries fake snaggle-teeth at all times, just so he can pull a gag whenever he feels like it. Maren Ade at least had a sense of humor about it, since she gave her father the mouthpiece as a gag, but she must have some sympathy with people who get tired of the constant goofing around, or else she couldn't have written and directed Toni Erdmann.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller) grew up with that guy as her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek). They must have had some fun when she was little, but she's grown up and it seems like he never will. She's scrabbling towards a foothold in the upper strata of a new, business-dominated Europe, while he's a divorced middle-class teacher back in Germany. Her rare visit home is one solid eye-roll. But shortly after she leaves, Winfried's dog dies, and he decides it would be nice to visit her in Bucharest, where her multinational oil company has sent her to draw up cost-cutting proposals for the local drilling operations.
Ines is naturally mortified when her father shows up. She's making business contacts with Russian diplomats at American embassy parties, and he's clumping around like a tourist from the sticks, making jokes about having hired a replacement daughter since his own is too busy to spend time with him. Thankfully, he gets the picture and heads home soon. Except he doesn't.
That's when Ines starts running into "Toni Erdmann", her father wearing his gag teeth and an unkempt Prince Valiant wig, claiming to be a "life coach" and consultant. But, surprisingly, she finds that she can actually deal with Toni in a way she never could with Winfried, at least since she grew up. Through him, she recaptures some sense of wonder and fun that she'd lost in her attempts to join the masters of the modern world.
Simonischek steals most of the scenes; his bizarre behavior is meant to draw attention, after all, and introverts are sure to find his shameless extraversion especially cringeworthy. But Hüller's performance, while usually subtler, is every big as fantastic and daring. She's the one who walks the audience through Ines' change of heart, and it's far from a straightforward path. Scene by scene her demeanor changes, and just when she seems to make a breakthrough she recoils just as suddenly.
Ade takes her time to walk through this journey. At 162 minutes it's one of the longest features to hit screens in the last year, but it doesn't drag along the way. Still, this might be one to watch at home where you can pause and stretch before deep vein thrombosis sets in. But however you see it, you'll be richly rewarded by the experience.
Rating: 4 out of 5