As with Maren Ade's couple-in-crisis drama Everyone Else, Toni Erdmann's greatest strength is the interpersonal dynamic shared by its two leads. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an aging divorcée and part-time piano teacher. He also likes to play pranks—with fake teeth, face paint, plenty of fibbing, and impersonations, like the brilliant one that gives the film its title. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), couldn't be more different. Based in Bucharest, but gunning for a transfer to Shanghai, she's a businesswoman hired by high-paying clients to facilitate downsizing their companies (and take the brunt of the blame for the layoffs that follow). The father and daughter have been estranged for a while, no doubt due to Winfried's eccentric personality, but during an impromptu visit to Bucharest for his daughter's birthday, Winfried notices that she's let her serious work ethic stifle her own happiness, and seizes an opportunity to help mellow her out.
Winfried basically pulls a Mrs. Doubtfire on his daughter, donning a disheveled wig and a pair of trusty fake teeth in order to infiltrate her professional sphere as “life coach” Toni Erdmann. Disguised as Erdmann, he flirts with Ines's friends at a bar, regaling them with the story of a turtle funeral; sits unassumingly on a whoopee cushion, interrupting Ines and her boss; and handcuffs himself to his daughter, as a joke, before then naturally misplacing the keys. It's all very silly and indelibly sweet—and, of course, for Ines, more than a little annoying.
Maren Ade possesses as fine an instinct for calibrating the emotions of her characters as any working director.
But both father and daughter benefit from this intense roleplay. For Winfried, it affords him the opportunity to parent his little girl again, and for Ines, putting her faith in the fantasy is a way of restoring it in her father. The importance of this parental bond, along with the characters' rebellion against Ines's stuffy corporate world—not to mention the featuring of one particularly hirsute costume in the film's final act—tip another of Toni Erdmann's unlikely filmic reference points: Monsters, Inc.
And like the Pixar film, Toni Erdmann also locates key moments of emotional distress to galvanize its funnier set pieces. One revelation of a scene involves Ines belting out the Whitney Houston power ballad “Greatest Love of All,” digging deep not only into its message of staunch self-sufficiency, but also its barely concealed vulnerabilities, as Winifred looks on with a mix of admiration and concern that is unique to a father.
Another standout sequence comes toward the end, when the film gently, and unexpectedly, slips into the surreal. The gambit works because Ade's always possessed as fine an instinct for calibrating the emotions of her characters as any working director, and because her film is all about rewarding leaps of faith. Likewise, scenes that can occasionally feel like they're going on too long (largely accounting for the film's nearly three-hour runtime), pay off with patience, eventually hitting just the right payoff or grace note.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.