Every once in a while, a comedy comes around that reaches beneath the surface, and digs out something deeper.  This was often true in the work of actors Peter Sellers and Andy Kaufman.  For Sellers, who was known more for his role in the Pink Panther series, it was titles such as Dr. Strangelove (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb), or Being There that allowed his comedic genius to shine, and to let the comedy have something important to say beyond the gags and premise.  Andy Kaufman’s commitment to characters, such as Tony Clifton, inspired director Maren Ade as she wrote and named her film.  If there is a similar comparison to Sellers and Kaufman in the modern day, it may just be this German film titled Toni Erdmann.

The premise of the film is as straight-forward as you will find.  A father, who is seeking to connect with his distant, work-aholic daughter, does anything possible to show her that he wants to be in her life.  There is not much comedy in this premise, but it is in the “How” that this father seeks to be in his daughter’s life that drives the humor and the larger point it is making about parents and children, and the need we have for striving to hold on to those relationships, even when they are strained.

All that is done is of course done for his daughter, Ines, but Toni Erdmann‘s gags and follies are really meant for us as well. They are meant to draw us out of our various metaphorically constructed walls that we have erected to keep others at arms length, and our life properly ordered.

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is an eccentric practical joker.  The opening scene alone is enough to give you more than a glimpse of what he is capable of, answering the door in a robe to accept a package.  Instead of simply taking the package inside, Winfried tells the delivery man that the package is actually for his brother.  A brother who incidentally, he says, just got out of jail for sending bombs through the mail.  He then closes the door to go and get said brother, while leaving this poor delivery man on the porch holding a package that could be (in the mind of the delivery man) a bomb.  When he re-emerges, he is wearing a pair of handcuffs, glasses, and some false teeth, eating a banana while claiming to be the fictional brother.  He also has a heart monitor on, which he claims is part of the detention device. Enter his alias, Toni Erdmann.

These are the sort of gags that have worn thin for Winfried’s ex-wife and her current husband, and especially for their daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller).  Ines works too hard.  Working for a major corporation, Ines has moved out of the country and now resides in Romania where she heads up an international business project in Bucharest.  She is working hard so that she can move on to her true goal of a project in Shanghai, China.  

While home visiting her parents, Ines spends most of the time answering her phone, and conducting business.  Constantly wearing dress shirts and slacks, Ines is about as buttoned up emotionally to her father as what she conveys in her business attire.  She is so busy, in fact, that she doesn’t even take the time, while in town, to visit her elderly grandmother, before leaving again to get back to work.

When a family loss takes place, Winfried seeks to be spontaneous and deal with his loss by visiting his only daughter.  It is at the worst possible time for her professionally.  Arriving unannounced, Winfried finds that Ines is less than thrilled about his presence in her life.  As Winfried accompanies her to various business functions, we clearly see that each needs the other in order to be whole.  Ines needs Winfried’s easy-going, fun attitude to balance her ultra-serious, laser-like focus that keeps her from being liked by her clients, and he needs someone to reign in his more outlandish tendencies.  Unfortunately, they continue to clash, and Winfried heads home…or so Ines thinks.

It is here where alter ego Toni Erdmann really is let loose. When he shows up with the wig, and false teeth, Toni presents himself as the company C.E.O.’s life coach to various people who Ines comes in contact with.  Each situation is escalated into more and more awkward encounters, pushing Ines to the breaking point.  As she pushes back at her father’s growing eccentricities, Ines finds herself wrestling with a side of herself that has been buried down deep.

Toni Erdmann is never really showy in its comedy, in spite of some of the gags and costumes.  Like the more black-comedy of the aforementioned Peter Sellers films, and Andy Kaufman characters, it is a comedy that you must work for.  All that is done is of course done for his daughter, Ines, but Toni Erdmann’s gags and follies are really meant for us as well. They are meant to draw us out of our various metaphorically constructed walls that we have erected to keep others at arms length, and our life properly ordered.  At 2 1/2 hours long, Erdmann takes his time weaving his web throughout Ines life, and ours, but it is a journey worth taking.

Toni Erdmann has been nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars taking place February 2017.  It is in German and English with English subtitles. It opens in select theaters in the United States.