If Toni Erdmann does win the Foreign Language Oscar, it will be the first comedy to do so since Life is Beautiful in 1998, and that was barely a comedy considering that it dealt with the Holocaust.
Wilfried (Peter Simonischek) is a semi-retired music teacher who, as we learn in the first two minutes, has a taste for practical jokes. When a young man appears at his door to deliver a package, Wilfried tells him that it must be for his brother who was just released from prison for sending letter bombs. “I’ll go get him,” says Wilfried, leaving the postman holding the package. Wilfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), could not be more different. Working for a German consultancy firm, she is based in Bucharest and completely absorbed in her work, trying to win an important new client and holding in her emotions while fighting the sexism of the corporate world. “I’m not a feminist,” she tells her boss, “or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.”
When Wilfried’s dog dies, he decides to pay an unannounced visit to Ines in Romania. Eventually, wearing false teeth and a ridiculous wig, he invades and disrupts Ines’ life, while posing as Toni Erdmann, a life coach (and sometimes as the German ambassador). To say that he embarrasses Ines would be putting it mildly. However, it gradually becomes clear that hidden inside Ines’ stern exterior, a bit of her father’s eccentric whimsy remains.
There is one scene late in the film in which Ines, goaded on by her father who accompanies her on piano, sings an amusing, but poignant, show-stopping version of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that has taken on a life of its own on the internet. You can watch it here.
I have read several reviews of Toni Erdmann in which Wilfried is described as a “prankster.” I think it is more appropriate to use the term “practical joker” in the original sense of the phrase because his pranks usually have a practical intent.
One more note for those who have already seen Toni Erdmann: can you ever again put a glazed petit four in your mouth without pausing to take a closer look at it?