I’m not sure the phrase “German comedy of embarrassment” even existed before “Toni Erdmann” hit the critics like a tsunami at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. An epic shaggy dog story, a poker-faced business farce, and some kind of date movie for fathers and grown daughters who’ve already put each other through the wringer, Maren Ade’s film opens in the Boston area Friday, and, despite an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film it defiantly refuses to play by the rules of Hollywood engagement.
You have to feel your way into each scene, wondering where it’s going to land — usually on some moment of primal mortification — and after a while you may notice there are three or five larger points being made, about parents and work and women and emotional intimacy, all mooshing up against each other organically. Like life, but funnier, if only because it’s not your family on the rack.
The father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is an aging semi-retired hippie who probably was the life of the party in his youth and now lives to play small, annoying practical jokes on his more staid friends and relatives in a small German town. Most staid of all is his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), visiting from Romania, where she has a high-pressure job consulting for oil companies who want to lay off their workers. It’s the classic modern dynamic of lefty parent and tightly-wound yuppie spawn, but “Toni Erdmann” takes it out of sitcom territory and into something longer, richer, weirder, and ultimately a great deal more affecting.
The father’s old dog dies, which spins him off on a cycle of grief that lands Winfried, without announcement, in the lobby of Ines’s office building in Bucharest. And in her life he stays, despite attempts to pack him off: He turns up at bars and in business conferences, wearing a fraudulent set of fake teeth and a hideous black wig, and introducing himself to her colleagues as one “Toni Erdmann,” who’s either a life coach or the German ambassador to Romania, depending on the situation.
Maybe his aim is to shock his daughter out of her unhappy rut; in one of Winfried’s crueler moments, he wonders aloud if Ines is even human. Or maybe he’s trying to jump start himself out of his late-life crisis. “Toni Erdmann” has moments of delirious deadpan absurdity — climaxing in a heroic karaoke performance of “The Greatest Love of All” by Ines — but they’re silhouetted against a backdrop of loneliness and disconnect.
What the father especially doesn’t notice, but Ade quietly makes sure we do, is Ines’s struggle for respect in a business world run by men, where ambition gets you labeled a bitch or, worse, a feminist. “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you,” Ines tells her complacent boss (Thomas Loibl), and he only thinks she’s kidding.
A Hollywood version — perhaps even the just-announced, starring Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig — might break out the pratfalls and fart jokes, the misty bonding moments between daughter and dad. Ade limits herself to precisely one fart joke and lets her scenes unfold in several directions at once — at nearly three hours, “Toni Erdmann” is expansive but rarely self-indulgent, and the emotional payoff, when it comes, feels truly and bizarrely earned. By then, you may have realized that Hüller’s Ines has become the movie’s main character, and that her dilemma — which is nothing less than how to become completely and nakedly oneself against all the assumptions of the world and our families — is one we each share.
That said, “Toni Erdmann” is a tough sell to moviegoers who like their movies to play nice. Winfried is the sort of active parental irritant who forces you to take sides; I know at least one person who couldn’t stand the movie because he couldn’t stand the father. Fair enough, and maybe the character is one of those touched souls whose gift is to prompt us to appreciate the ridiculousness in everything, which is only a problem if you’re a close relation. Trying to cheer up a fired Romanian oil field worker, “Toni” tells him “Don’t lose the humor,” and then, turning to his daughter, asks her to “translate, please.”
None needed; “Toni Erdmann” eventually comes through loud and clear.
Written and directed by Maren Ade. Starring Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 162 minutes. R (strong sexual content, graphic nudity, language, brief drug use). In German, English, and Romanian, with subtitles.