On paper, nothing about Toni Erdmann suggests how entertaining it can be.
Running nearly three hours, it's a sort-of comedy from a country not renowned for its sense of humor, subtitled without name stars. The title character wears a fright wig and phony buck teeth. His quest is a cliché, re-establishing a family connection.
Yet not many movies slap smiles on my face as often as Maren Ade's Oscar-nominated, awkwardly warm German gem. Toni Erdmann finds comedy in the depths of despair and vice versa, never hinting what's coming next. The movie is as much of a put-on as its impractically joking hero.
His name isn't really Toni Erdmann. Toni is an alter ego, a running prank by Winfried Conradi, played with shy, shaggy charm by Peter Simonischek. Winfried is retired in Germany, living with an old dog whose death leaves him lonely enough to look up his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller). She's working as a consultant in Bucharest but distance between them is greater than that.
Ines is a type-A personality clashing with her father's irreverence. It's fair to assume he'll rub off on her more than she on him. Ade's screenplay takes a long, deceptively aimless route to that inevitability. Patience is tested yet usually rewarded with gestures or telling silences.
Winfried's rumpled alter ego is initially his way of getting close to Ines, observing her at work. She's horrified to have him around, even as himself. "Toni" ingratiates himself into her personal and professional circles, passing as a "life coach" for executives, vulgar as he may be. In the midst of a corporate crisis, Ines might use Toni to an advantage.
Ade constructs a screwball comedy tossed underhand, more slowly paced than the genre suggests. Laughs are muted by embarrassing circumstances, like Ines sexually humiliating her colleague/lover (Trystan Putter) and later hosting the most uncomfortable birthday party ever. An ancient Romanian spirit figures into the mix. Anything might.
How fine Toni Erdmann is despite its obstacles is evidenced by the fact that Hollywood already has an English language remake in the works. Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig are cast and it's easy to see why they're interested. It's also easy to identify those aspects of Toni Erdmann that will or should get lost in translation.
Ade's first hour before Toni invades Ines' life will be streamlined, letting the actors' personas do the work easier. Ines' work issues don't need to play such a large part. I can't foresee Wiig tackling some of Huller's more daring moments, or Nicholson modulating sorrow like Simonischek.
Then there are scenes that must be part of the remake, like Ines belting out a Whitney Houston classic at Toni's request, baring her soul in the process. Or that birthday party however it's managed. Toni Erdmann is another in a long line of unlikely delights destined to be ruined by Hollywood.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.