The movie “Toni Erdmann” has the kind of plot you’d expect from an Adam Sandler movie: father surprises his workaholic daughter, she rebuffs him, he reappears in disguise to play pranks on her and in 90 minutes, both learn to love each other again.
But this film is three hours long, comes from Germany and competed for the Palme D’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it was cruelly and surprisingly snubbed of any award).
It is, quite simply, the best film made last year and close to being among the best of this decade. Maren Ade’s third feature is a strange, unclassifiable hybrid that has no business working at all, let alone being as side splittingly hilarious as it so often is. Somehow, whether through sheer force of will or confidence in her material, Ade makes it work and the result is just sublime.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a retired 70-year-old music teacher with a mischievous glint in his eye, is introduced in the opening minutes playing a prank on a delivery man, putting his sick sense of humor on full display.
His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is more serious and reserved, so naturally she doesn’t take well to him showing up in her Budapest apartment on a whim. Though she placates him by bringing him with her to some work functions, it’s clear she would rather he keep his distance.
By the time Winnie finally leaves around the 30-minute mark, the film proceeds to follow Ines through her daily work life as she attempts to assert herself as a woman in the workplace (a theme Ade gently nudges to the foreground as it goes on). So it’s genuinely surprising when Winnie barges back into her life wearing fake teeth and a terrible wig, calling himself Toni Erdmann and professing to be things as varied as a life coach to the German ambassador to Romania. His reintroduction is among the funniest scenes in the movie, enhanced by the way Ade strings it out to the point where it’s almost unbearably tense as to when he’ll pop back up.
Describing more of the plot would ruin some of the more well planned gags, but rest assured that Ade skillfully switches tones on a dime, turning every interaction with Erdmann into painfully funny cringe comic sequences that never overstay their welcome. It’s a testament to how wholeheartedly the actors commit to the performances and Ade’s dedication to tiny details that none of this comes off as phony or unrealistic.
Huller and Simonischek possess fantastic comedic timing and physicality; some of the best jokes are when they aren’t even trying. An example is late in the film when Ines throws spaghetti at her father and he catches and tosses it behind him at a wall, without even breaking from his dialogue.
Ade isn’t ashamed to lean into broad humor like this and it culminates into a fantastically audacious sequence at the climax that’s a masterpiece in cringe.
Even before that, there’s at least one scene that will make you stand up and clap (the viewing audience at Cannes certainly did). But more than anything what keeps this from being some empty exercise is the commitment to showing Ines’ unhappiness at her surroundings. She may not enjoy her father breaking into her life, but it’s clear that she’s not enjoying it before that. Their final scenes together just after the climax will come close to breaking your heart.
“Toni Erdmann” has lived under hype since its Cannes premiere, and it fully lives up to every word of it. If the world were fair, subtitles would not be holding it back and it would screen in every theater in America. In fact, there have been rumors of an American remake in the works which Ade hasn’t entirely dismissed.
It would be a shame if it did go through, because in its current state there’s nothing like “Toni Erdmann” in theaters and there probably never will be again. Do not let the subtitles scare you away from this; it’s a one of a kind masterpiece that deserves to be seen in theaters, and it should be Maren Ade’s breakthrough moment.