Toni Erdmann's premise is simple: Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a thirtysomething workaholic whose father Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a practical joker. Concerned that his daughter is losing her soul to her job, Winfried dons a fright wig and some ridiculous false teeth, pretends that he is a freelance consultant named "Toni Erdmann", and insinuates himself into Ines's work life – all to add some humor to her life.
At this point you may be thinking, Wow, Toni Erdmann sounds awful. And it might indeed have been awful, had it been a 1990s Hollywood movie starring Robin Williams in the father role. But this is Germany, not Hollywood, and Simonischek, a shambling hulk of a man, is all quiet melancholy, as far from Williams' over-caffeinated mania as you can possibly get.
Although there's a handful of deadpan-hilarious moments, the charms of Toni Erdmann are somewhat elusive. It clocks in at 2 hours and 40 minutes. It's a "hangout movie", a collection of scenes with only a wisp of a plot connecting them. It takes a harsh look at globalization and the white collar world. (In the Hollywood equivalent, Ines's stressful job would be something glamorous, like running a fashion magazine or a successful art gallery. Here she's a consultant for a Romanian oil company seeking to outsource its workforce. It's a rotten job that makes her a rotten person; at one point, after she is forced to take her client's dull Russian wife out on a shopping spree, her father asks her, "Are you even human?") Anyone expecting a crowd pleaser should rent The Intern. There are no stand-up-and-cheer moments in Toni Erdmann.
And yet, despite itself, this is kind of a wonderful film.
Much of the credit goes to Hüller and Simonischek. They are eminently watchable performers, she with her Teutonic frown, he with his Austrian slyness. But it is Ade, who also wrote the script, who has tapped into a unique magic. Everything in Toni Erdmann is real and surreal. Outrageous but unselfconscious. Wistful but not depressing. Truthful but enigmatic. It's a bizarre movie, and definitely not for all tastes (drugs, nudity, and a disturbing sex scene may keep grandma away). But it's a haunting film, hard to pin down, about how we gauge the value of our lives moment by special moment.