Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired piano teacher, feels lonely after his dog dies. His estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), works long hours for a consulting firm as a business consultant. He decides to visit her out of the blue and follow her to work to try to rekindle their father-daughter relationship through a series of pranks where he dons a wig and false teeth as "Toni Erdmann."
To merely describe the plot of Toni Erdmann wouldn't do it any justice. Like many great films, it can't be summarized adequately with words nor can it fit into a genre. On the one hand, it's also a comedy with screwball, witty and absurd humor, some of which is quite bold---please be warned, though: you will never look at a petit four the same way ever again. On the other hand, it's a tragedy with two wounded, lonely souls who come together in spite of their many differences while discovering and learning to love themselves as well as each other. Comedy, after all, is almost always rooted in tragedy. Fortunately, writer/director Maren Ade hits just the right notes as she blends comedy and drama with some depth lurking beneath the surface to allow you to ponder larger issues like the meaning of happiness, family, love and forgiveness. In other words, she grounds the film in humanism, a priceless, truly special effect.
The character of Winfried isn't easy to like because he seems creepy, selfish, annoying and emotionally needy at first, but as the film progresses he becomes somewhat endearing in spite of his seemingly childish behavior. He fundamentally lover her although perhaps he doesn't quite know how to express his love in the usual ways. One wonders what the relationship was like with his own parents. There's much more to him than meets the eye which makes him all the more interesting as a character. Ines is also complex: she seems cold and overworked with a stiff upper lip, but, with the help of her father, she gradually loosens up and starts to confront her buried emotions. The fact that Ines and Winfried come to life is a testament to the raw and convincingly moving performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. Both of them help to make their characters actually feel like they're father and daughter even when they don't speak to one another. Their greatest triumph, though, is that they manage to find the emotional truths of their characters.
The post profound, surprising scene in the film is when Ines sings Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" as her father plays the piano. Pay close attention to the song's lyrics because they speak volumes about Ines' emotional breakthrough. That scene will probably be remembered the most, but there are other smaller, subtler, quieter scenes that also have leave a powerful emotional impact. Kudos to Maren Ade for trusting the audience's intelligence as well as something that's underrated this days and ultimately rewarding: patience. The understated ending works beautifully and leaves enough room for interpretation. Anyone who dares to call Toni Erdmann shallow either wasn't paying close enough attention to the film and/or is shallow themselves. Whether you see it as a comedy grounded in tragedy or a tragedy grounded in comedy, Toni Erdmann is a profound, heartfelt and outrageously funny emotional journey. It's one of the best films of the year.