Winfried is a divorced music teacher with a penchant for embarrassing practical jokes and silly fake personae. When his dog dies, he travels to Budapest to visit his daughter Ines, whose high-flying job, patronising boss and attempts to win a contract with a German chief executive leave her with little time for dad, let alone his shenanigans.
Winfried responds by gate-crashing her social functions and laying on various tall tales. Finally he shows up to a girls’ night in a wig and false teeth as Toni Erdmann, an ill-defined life coach. Will Ines, who is surrounded by condescension and mansplaining in her unfulfilling and consuming profession, finally crack and find her own inner-Erdmann?
There’s already a great deal of chatter about a Hollywood remake of Maren Ade’s endearingly offbeat German family dramedy. It’s easy to see why the Americans might like to get their mits on the Oscar-nominated shaggy beast story (in all possible senses), and why Bill Murray and Steve Martin are often cited as possible candidates to snag the role so gamely played by Peter Simonischek. (It’s trickier to imagine anyone in Tinseltown stepping up to emulate Sandra Hüller’s daring, thawing portrayal of Ines.)
Phrases such as dad-bod, dad-rock and dad-dancing pale in comparison to Toni Erdmann’s acute and consistently mortifying understanding of the generation gap. Between them, the stars juggle with our affections, so that the viewer is either moved by daddy and daughter’s loneliness, or, in common with Ines, hopes a hole in the ground will appear and swallow them up. Even when Winfried isn’t around, a sex scene between Ines and a colleague is simultaneously hilarious, pathetic and scarlet-making.
The freewheeling pace and Patrick Veigel’s cinematography make for a vérité presentation of material that is typically over-glossed and overly lit. (There is no excusing the absurdly overlong running time, nonetheless.)
A diptych character study featuring characters well-worth studying, Toni Erdmann is an affecting, delightful original. Prepare to face-palm – in a good way.