Toni Erdmann, the character, is a death clown, a life coach, and a big, hairy Bulgarian monster. Toni Erdmann, the Oscar-nominated film from German filmmaker Maren Ade, is a farce, a tearjerker, and a bonkers take on globalization and its discontents. It begins with a shaggy German music teacher, Winfried (Austrian theater vet Peter Simonischek, soulful and impish), who likes to play practical jokes no one appreciates. His mother is an ungrateful grump, his ex-wife has moved on with her life, and his daughter, an oil industry consultant, is based in Romania. He's a lonely man with no one but his blind mutt, Willy, to keep him company.
When his daughter, Ines (the wondrous Sandra Hüller, who first caught my eye as a Belle de Jour–inspired sex surrogate in 2010's Brownian Movement), drops by for a short visit, Winfried tries to connect with her, but she spends most of the time making work calls. Later, after a couple of personal setbacks, Winfried decides to visit Ines in Bucharest where his attempts to make her laugh—involving a set of false teeth and a cheese grater—fall flat, so he pretends to leave only to reemerge as Toni Erdmann, a goofy gent who pops up at the most inopportune times, like when Ines is with friends, coworkers, or the CEO she's desperate to impress.
At first, she plays along, but her discomfort grows as she starts to see her life through Toni's eyes: the casual sexism she tolerates on a daily basis, the snobbishness of her social set, and the real-world consequences of her boardroom decisions. Director Ade (Everyone Else) combines several films in one, and Toni Erdmann shouldn't work as well as it does, but it flows smoothly from comic set pieces to humiliating encounters to Buñuel-like surrealism as a birthday party takes a turn for the transcendently strange. If the 162-minute film threatens to wear out its welcome, Ade brings everything home with a humanist's light, loving touch.