Dad jokes are the best. Those groan-inducing one-liners, rambling stories and bad puns that seem to emanate best from the mouths of fathers and grandfathers can be a vivid part of our childhood memories, and a source of a smile when one thinks back. Maren Ade’s Cannes hit Toni Erdmann is the ultimate tribute to the dad joke and a gut-busting reminder of how the wisdom of our parents can be applicable in all facets of our messy modern lives. Even in the middle of a pressurised business deal, a knowing wink from Dad could be enough to reassure.
All that said, Toni Erdmann starts out with Dad as the one in need. We’re introduced to Winfried (Peter Simonischek), greeting a courier at his door in false buck teeth, pretending to be his own brother. As you do. With his dog having passed away and his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) working abroad, Winfried finds his life has reached a drab plateau. We appreciate this because Ade allows us to spend time with Winfried, never shying away from his eccentricities and always watching for the man behind the buck teeth and accents. Long divorced, Winfried’s friends and his work as a drama teacher at a local school can’t hide his loneliness any better than his disguises. In these early scenes, Simonischek is subtly downtrodden, which makes his later gregariousness stick out more. Toni Erdmann takes it time to set up its characters and stakes, to the point that the laughs don’t necessarily come thick and fast in the opening half-hour. Though pitched as a comedy (which it certainly is), Ade approaches the material first and foremost as a character study. The camera follows Winfried with the observant eye of a documentary, letting the absurdity come from the characters and the messes into which they repeatedly drag themselves. Amongst its many wisdoms, Toni Erdmann proves human nature is a pretty strange thing.
Bolstered by his loneliness and his daughter’s apparent workaholism, Winfried travels to Bucharest to see her, only to find her work schedule permitting them very little time together. Of course, all the assistants and swanky receptions getting the way can’t deter Winfried from attempting to reconnect with Ines. Toni Erdmann plays out like many a young professional’s worst nightmare, as professional and familial lives are suddenly smashed together. Hüller is magnificent as the frustrated Ines, who ends up having to drag Winfried to a reception at the American Embassy. We enter this setup full sure that Winfried will embarrass Ines (which he duly does), but we can’t be quite sure how. A lot of Toni Erdmann’s laughs come from its sheer unpredictability. Laughs in comedy are like scares in horror: they work best when you don’t see them coming, and so Ade makes sure to keep us on our toes, subjecting us to constant surprise, with a great deal of added poignancy between some of the biggest laughs to grace the big screen in years.
The days that follow show the distance that has grown between Winfried and Ines. She doesn’t find his jokes as funny as once she might, and he seems flabbergasted by her never-ending work and lack of a home life. The universal concerns of parents the world over are Toni Erdmann’s lifeblood. Ines is undeniably good at what she does, but there’s little to no fun or relaxation in her schedule. Thus, almost an hour in, we’re finally introduced to Toni Erdmann, Winfried’s buck-toothed, bad-wigged alter ego, posing as Ines’ life coach. His first appearance comes out of nowhere, and he proceeds to wage war on his daughter’s unhappiness. Whenever Ines seems to be struggling with the physical demands of her job (A stained blouse here, a lost toenail there) or the chauvinism of her colleagues, some demented version of her dear old Papa is never too far away to offer slapstick-based relief.
From the moment Toni arrives, the film becomes a hive of unpredictability as Toni subjects Ines to a barrage of jokes and hijinks that at once annoy Ines and endear both her and Toni to us. One could complain the film’s 162-minute runtime is excessive, but it’s time spent in oddly relatable company, and thus it whizzes by. Toni Erdmann needs its runtime to bring these characters to life, and by the end, we’re sad to leave them. But the memories will linger; encounters involving handcuffs, Whitney Houston, random nudity and a Bulgarian monster costume are pant-wettingly funny and are amongst the highlights of an unassuming film that slowly but surely worms its way into your heart. Ade, Hüller and Simonischek have done something remarkable; they’ve made something universal out of a story that’s both specific in its setting and outrageous in its narrative. It’s a joyous reminder that homespun wisdom can apply to absolutely any situation life can throw at us.