“Toni Erdmann” is hell of a movie. In an era when so many blockbusters are obsessed with stretching their run times to emit the air of Importance, a movie with a synopsis as swift as “Toni Erdmann” – father tries to reconnect with daughter and hijinks ensue – seems readymade for a lickety split ninety minutes; instead writer/director Maren Ade blows it out to two hours and forty-two minutes. You might check your watch while it’s happening, or while, more accurately, nothing much is happening, yes, so committed is the film to corporate drudgery, the way in which capitalism and its emotional trickledown effect squeezes mounds of humanity and joy out of a person, rendering even swank nightclubs and sexual liaisons as grim non-escapades. At the same time, however, Ade pokes and prods at this stodgy, sexist culture, not until it gives way but until something animated and unpredictable emerges from all around it. You see this in the handheld camera work, which is not lifelike, per se, but, given its principal Bucharest setting, melds long takes of the Romanian New Wave with that sort of deliberately intrusive, follow-them-everywhere aesthetic of “The Office”, waiting and waiting for something to happen. And when it does, what transpires is often so raw, funny and beautiful, usually all at once, that it will make time stop.
The movie turns on Ines (Sandra Hüller), a consultant who has come on business from her native Germany to Bucharest to help an oil company mercilessly outsource its employment. The corporate life’s strain is evident in the ferociously buttoned-up air Hüller emits, evinced in a massage that leaves her additionally stressed out, griping about the masseuse’s technical flaws. It is a life her father, Winifred (Peter Simonischek) a retired hippie, of sorts, with a penchant for pranks, knows nothing about. So, he pulls his biggest prank, traveling to Bucharest and literally invading his daughter’s space by inventing a whole new persona in which he dons a black wig and false teeth and re-christens himself Toni Erdmann, a “life coach”, which would be an obvious allegory if he didn’t also sometimes masquerade as the “German ambassador.”
One scene finds Winifried pulling a gag on Ines by handcuffing himself to her before an important meeting. Alas, he can’t, as you might expect, find the key. Though it momentarily literalizes the attempts by Winifred to connect with his daughter, it’s also indicative of the film’s humor, as the expected payoff, father and daughter coming handcuffed to the meeting, never materializes. Ade has no intention of making the humor so funny or obvious, often allowing Winifred's absurd antics to play out in the back of wide frames, like a moment with a fart cushion where the badness of the joke itself is sort of the point; if “Toni Erdmann” had a laugh track it would be predominantly groans and stony silences.
Yet those groans and stony silences become slightly heroic in a way, given the staidness of the repeated corporate settings, airless conferences rooms and offices, where you can still feel the pent-up rage of this workaday life settling over the characters. In his own clumsy way, Winifried is trying to wake up Ines to the light of the living, to stop sinking into the consulting quagmire and give in to her own impulses, which never comes home for brilliantly then in a late film sequence where Ines plans, as she does throughout, to wed business with pleasure by having clients and co-workers over for her birthday. What transpires, triggered by a dress mishap, run humiliation and self-assurance smack dab into one another by virtue of a much more caustic variation of Inspector Closeau inadvertently visiting the nudist colony in “A Shot in the Dark.”
For as uproarious, as Are You Serious? as this scene is, it is melancholy too in the way that Ines and even a few others are forced to the edge whether they like it or not, and yet Winifred shows up still costumed and closed off, prodding at his daughter but not opening himself up to her. And just as Ade opts out of traditional punchlines, she has little interest in zeroing in on a traditional character arc for either Ines or Winifred, which is precisely what lends the film's lengthy, shapeless vibe so much credence. Both of these characters, so long out of touch, are feeling their way forward in the dark.
Two hours and forty-two minutes might seem ample time for traditional cinematic arc that takes characters from Sad to Happy but Ade is only all too happy to laugh at such a trite notion, just as she is not about to simplistically concede that Winifried’s omnipresent comicality, if you will, is a complete and total tonic. Consider the closing shot, an intimate stunner, where Ines indulges her father’s wish to copy his moves and put on a funny hat. But then, she removes the hat and all she’s left with (gulp) is herself.