'Toni Erdmann' pranks its way toward something profound

Peter Simonischek as Winfried and Sandra Hüller as Ines

Peter Simonischek as Winfried and Sandra Hüller as Ines Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose not to spend time with them.

Or at least you can try: In Toni Erdmann, thirtysomething careerist Ines (Sandra Hüller) does her utmost to avoid her semi-estranged prankster of a father (Peter Simonischek), which prompts him to turn her life into an extended practical joke. Winfried travels from their German hometown to his daughter’s new home in Bucharest, announcing his arrival by waiting for hours in the lobby of her office just to walk past her with gag-store false teeth.

He then creates an alter ego — the Toni of the title — and approaches Ines and her friends in a bar one night. She pretends not to know him, not to save her father the embarrassment but to save herself; too much is never enough for him, and variations on this theme repeat for weeks on end.

Maren Ade’s film is 162 minutes’ worth of proof that Germans do have a sense of humor, which isn’t to say that it’s a comedy — though frequently hilarious, Toni Erdmann slowly morphs from an uncomfortable laugh riot into something more nuanced and involving. It has the premise of a zany sitcom and hits all the familiar plot points, but does so in such in a diffuse, roundabout way that you’re almost unsure of what you’re watching in the moment.

In between those narrative beats, Toni Erdmann shows its true, multi-hued colors. Asked by her father whether she’s happy, Ines is business casual in her response: “Lots of words buzzing around here: fun, life, happiness,” she says curtly. She has little time for his whoopee cushions, less still for his probing questions, and would likely agree with Annette Bening’s 20th Century Women character when she muses that “wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to just being depressed.”

As is always true in movies of this kind — and, most often, in life — Winfried/Toni’s bizarre behavior is born of pain. A recent retiree whose sophomoric sense of humor went over better with his students than it does with his straitlaced daughter and ex-wife, he finds himself with little to do after the death of his beloved dog. In this way, Toni Erdmann becomes the person that Winfried wishes he could be, or at least an aspect of his personality he may not be bold enough to put his name to.

Toni Erdmann is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, not that it’s likely to win. Ade’s film defies easy categorization, which is to say that Hollywood will probably reward the tasteful Danish drama about World War II instead and remake this one with John C. Reilly a few years from now.

In the meantime, don’t be intimidated by the protracted runtime or subtitles. Toni Erdmann is hugely entertaining, and like Ade’s previous film, the low-key romantic drama Everyone Else, insightful about the long-term effects of strained relations between loved ones. As the rift between father and daughter narrows, expands, and narrows again, the two eventually reach out to one another to find their footing on unsteady ground. He might be waiting with a hand buzzer, but at least she knows he’ll be there.

Toni Erdmann
Directed by Maren Ade
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre