The title character in “Toni Erdmann” doesn’t exist but is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (played by Peter Simonischek), a mischievous old jokester who carries a wig and false comedy teeth with him everywhere he goes, just in case. He’s a music teacher at a German elementary school, surely close to retirement, with a lot of time and imagination on his hands and no one to spend it on. Except his daughter. His poor, poor daughter.
This is the funniest, most affable almost-three-hour German comedy you’re likely to see this year, a heartfelt father-daughter story that almost defies classification. Written and directed by Maren Ade (“Everyone Else”), it’s plotted like a farce — false identities, chance encounters, surprise nudity — but, at 162 minutes, obviously not paced like one. Mingled with the abundant, well-executed silliness is a tender tale about an incorrigible but lovable dad looking out for his unhappily career-driven little girl.
Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller), a severe blonde with an exhausted demeanor, is an international business consultant who’s been posted in Bucharest, Romania, for the past year. Unannounced, Dad shows up for a visit, alternately amusing and embarrassing Ines with his off-the-wall improvisations as Toni Erdmann, a business consultant and life coach who somehow ingratiates himself with every colleague or client of Ines’ that he happens to meet.
After a stretch of this endearing, frequently hilarious tomfoolery, Dad exits the stage (don’t worry, he’ll be back) and Ines becomes the protagonist. This shift in perspective opens the door for deeper character development, and Ade takes full advantage of it. The more we learn of Ines’ unfulfilled personal life (she has dalliances with a colleague she barely even likes) and the uphill battle she faces in the masculine world of business, the more we understand her father’s sweet, albeit poorly expressed concern.
Without falling into the cliches of the sentimental Hollywood formula where an uptight professional learns to relax through the ministrations of a carefree (i.e., irresponsible) clown figure, Ade explores the off-kilter dynamic between Winfried and Ines with mirthful insight. Simonischek, cheerfully unkempt and paunchy, has a twinkle in his eye when he meddles, more avuncular than paternal. Hüller, serious in her role as straightman (but stand back when she finally cuts loose!), is great at playing exasperation.
Unsurprisingly, at 162 minutes, the film feels too long. Rare is the movie without an epic-scale story that needs such a runtime. That being said, nothing in “Toni Erdmann” made me think, “Oh, this is the part they should have cut.” There aren’t any subplots or tangents, no extraneous characters. It’s too much of a good thing, that’s all, like binge-watching six episodes of a TV show when four would have been plenty. Speaking of which, if there were a weekly series of half-hour “Toni Erdmann” adventures, I’d watch it.
B (2 hrs., 42 min.; German with subtitles; )