On paper, writer-director Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” has a simple premise: After the death of his dog, lonely single parent Winfried (Peter Simonischek) shows up in the big city to attempt to win back the affections of his estranged adult daughter Ines (an astounding Sandra Hüller), ultimately wearing disguises so he can follow her around town without her friends and co-workers figuring it out. Drawn out to two hours and 42 minutes, however, the German filmmaker’s long-awaited follow-up to 2009’s “Everyone Else” becomes something much subtler and perceptive than its rudimentary set-up would suggest. Ade’s epic two-hander about family dynamics asks a lot of its audience — to roll with a nearly three-hour drama that takes its time — but there is payoff in its ambition.
Much like “Everyone Else,” a romantic drama about a couple who come to blows in the final act, the new movie slowly establishes its individual components before landing on a zany twist. When Winfried first encounters his daughter, she’s barely responsive to his advances, and some unseemly mix of loneliness and concern motivates him to follow her back home. Abruptly surfacing at her office, he winds up in the care of her obsequious assistant while she entertains her buttoned-up coworkers — until he finds his way into that meeting as well.
So goes the ensuing odyssey, as jokester Winfried tries to spice up his daughter’s life with a series of pranks that generally draws blank stares. When that strategy fails, he comes up with a more audacious plan, by crashing her social outings in disguise and using the fake name of the title. With no option but to play along to avoid further embarrassment, she allows her costumed father to hover on the precipices of her workaholic lifestyle, even as he gets too close.
With his heavyset build, Simonischek becomes a friendly giant to the unwitting Ines, who endures her icy corporate gig as if she has no other option. But Winfried, constructing his “Toni Erdmann” alter-ego as a kind of superhero persona, has other plans. Though the scenario bears some comparison to the recently-released “The Meddler,” Ade’s slow-burn approach unfolds as a meditative storytelling technique that makes it tough to categorize. Less of a comedy than meets the eye, it’s a probing look at the disconnect between family ties and professional drive. With Winfred unable to access either aspect of his daughter’s life, he comes up with an elaborate strategy to hack his way into both.
Ade deepens his efforts by committing long stretches of time to exploring the bored, frustrating cycle of work pressure that consumes Ines at every corner. While she asserts her independence when pushing her father away, these other scenes reinforce the sense of her world closing in. Her only semblance of romantic life involves a meaningless hotel room affair with her co-worker; beyond that, she has no apparent social life, or even the ability to engage in a casual conversation. Winfred’s ability to locate that problem and fight to become the support system she needs sets the stage for a fascinating psychological battle filled with odd twists.
The film isn’t always successful at justifying its heft, repeating the central father-daughter tension innumerable times before the pair finally starts to make some progress. But the two leads’ extraordinary authenticity allows “Toni Erdmann” to keep propelling forward, juggling themes about family and work-life balance that stretch beyond the cultural specificity of its setting. Tasked with constantly reacting to her father as he surfaces at the most inappropriate moments, Hüller delivers a remarkably subtle performance as the introvert so committed to bottling up her feelings. Simonischek, an exuberant goofball who has no respect for boundaries but only good intentions, provides the ideal foil to the Hüller character’s repressive tendencies.
While the story meanders, Ade compensates with charged emotional showdowns that seemingly materialize out of nowhere. One memorable party scene builds to Ines’ startling rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” which allows her to express far more than she can with her own words. But the real set piece is a hilarious, prolonged third act sequence that finds virtually the entire cast of the movie standing around Ines’ apartment in their birthday suits. It’s a climax for the ages.
At first the result of an awkward, discomfiting act of desperation, the scene evolves into a remarkable form of comedic suspense that speaks to the catharsis of letting it all hang out. Almost certainly the funniest nude scene of all time, it’s at once an inventive form of physical comedy and bizarrely touching.
But once it reaches a satisfying outcome, the movie again keeps going, heading into a prologue that suggests no end in sight. That in itself speaks to the filmmaking prowess of a director who knows exactly what she’s doing: Ade pushes the material to a breaking point and doesn’t stop, but even as “Toni Erdmann” outstays its welcome, that reinforces its central focus on what it means to do just that. Life is not always an easy sit.
“Toni Erdmann” premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.