By Richard von Busack
Lovable if not ordinarily hilarious, Toni Erdmann explores both sides of a situation familiar to many. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is “Dude” Lebowski’s German cousin, a shaggy joker retired from something or other. After his elderly dog dies, he’s at loose ends. So he decides to surprise his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) at her job in Bucharest. She works as a consultant—which is to say, she’s a hatchet-wielder looking for potential layoffs.
Ines is in the middle of some delicate business and has little time to haul her father around the capital’s sites. The two spat, and he heads home … or so it seems. When Ines is having dinner with some female colleagues, her zany father reappears, fright-wigged and posing as an important businessman called “Toni Erdmann.”
The style recalls the Romanian wave of a few years back, when one brilliant movie after another was arriving from that nation. It’s long, and heavy on procedural material. Yet Toni Erdmann is often as an acute exploration of business anxieties as we’ve seen since Michael Clayton, depicting the world of nervous sweat, double-talk and ugly pantyhose.
Ines dismisses her father as a Green-Party weirdo, but we see her side of it—he’s so exasperating that he provokes her to a howled-out version of the affirmation-heavy song “The Greatest Love of All” at a party. An ordinary practical joker seeks the humiliation of his victims—the rare kind seeks to enlighten. In this disguise as a capitalist, Winfried is trying to nudge his daughter, making her realize what she’s doing: Colluding with greedy businessmen who are making Romania worse.
Everyone who’s had a sudden guest during a rough patch at work will know how she feels, and it’s easy to respond to the wrongness of Winfried blurting out, “Are you really a human?” to his overbooked daughter. He has the advantage of a man who feels he belongs everywhere, from a country farmhouse to a business class hotel bar. Director Maren Ade is raunchy but tender about the body’s needs, and sentimental about the small good things—wooden Easter eggs and a bag of apples from a peasant’s farm.
‘Toni Erdmann’ opens on Friday, January 27 at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center.