The viewer is grateful for Ines' indulgence, as Toni Erdmann fills the bulk of its runtime with these long scenes that escalate and go on far longer than the viewer expects. Winfried baits Ines into going along with his lies, she reaches a point where she might break, and then she commits all over again. It satisfies the Simpsons Rake rule, where a lengthy scene starts funny, continues until it stops being funny, and then continues past that point and is funnier than it was at the beginning. This is such a rare thing for a comedy to get right, especially in the current era of heavy improvisation and brisk editing brought on by high joke density. Ade takes her time, letting scenes breathe while the viewer becomes familiar with the characters and gets laughs from the specific and the broad. There are admiring giggles and big guffaws to be had here.
Ade, who also wrote the script, has no problem earning spontaneous reactions of laughter, but Toni Erdmann is not all absurdity and comedic daring. This is a film that could easily have been played straight, because its characters have clearly delineated worldviews and dilemmas that just happen to play out in a funny way. Ines' efforts are in service to corporatism, where her firm has been hired so they can recommend layoffs which the client company was always going to do in the first place. Money that could be spent on keeping those jobs or retraining workers is instead spent on high-powered consulting companies. It's a deadening field, and Winfried, a retired music teacher, hates to see his daughter in pursuit of such aims. At the same time, Ines is subjected to a constant trickle of workplace sexism, and she believes that the best way to remove this poison from her industry is to be better than the troglodytes and rise to the top of their companies, potentially making better decisions once she's there. She seeks to do big things with her life, while her unambitious father prefers to admire the little things. Ade stacks the deck against Ines with the cowardice of her client and is clearly on Winfried's side, but this is far smarter than twisted rom-com's where the careerist woman needs to loosen up. It admires Winfried while not belittling Ines, as someone has to do the big things.
Simonischek and Huller are superb in what's largely a two-hander. One or the other is in every scene. Simonischek never fails to amuse with his disguise. It's exactly the right amount of ridiculous; any more, and no one would buy it, but any less would diminish his complete lack of self-consciousness. His particular body shape lurking in the background, waiting to make his move, can often be seen at the corners of the frame, building anticipation for whatever he does next. As the straight woman, Huller is his equal, if not his superior. She is in full control of every muscle on her face, and it's a joy to watch a strand twitch in frustration. Her body goes through its own journey during each of Winfried's gags, where she tenses up to resist his efforts and then gradually relaxes until she's mimicking his posture. The rapport between the two suggests a relationship that used to be much closer, one where she was his eager partner and might've even had her own wig and set of false teeth.
A recommendation for a 162 minute German film is likely to raise both eyebrows of the recommendee, but Toni Erdmann is that urban legend about the bumblebee. It supposedly shouldn't be able to fly, weighted down by its form, but somehow it does anyway. Maren Ade has made a film that somehow works, a corporate satire and a family drama and a comedy of manners, all allowed to take as much time as they need to merge and gel. The coming American remake seems doomed to fail, if only because the idea that this could be topped, or even matched, is laughable. Not as laughable as a large man strolling through a park in a Bulgarian costume, but still pretty laughable. B+