Delving into microeconomics and macroaggressions, Toni Erdmann, the dynamite, superbly acted third feature by writer/director Maren Ade, is social studies at its finest. This quicksilver, emotionally astute comedy operates on many different registers and moods: Whoopee cushions and gag teeth are part of the fun, but so too is a piquant dissection of father-daughter bonds and of the sinister banality of corporate consultancy. In the filmmaker's no-nonsense humanism, mortification motors the plot so that a modicum of dignity can be restored.
The film opens with one of several seemingly humdrum exchanges: the delivery of a package. The recipient, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a rumpled, teddy-bearish, snowy-haired music teacher, bewilders the courier at his doorstep by insisting the parcel is for "Toni"; he then disappears into the house only to return as his joker alter ego, sporting ridiculous fake choppers.
Winfried, it seems, is always clowning -- and just as often annoying those he hopes to delight, especially his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a careerist corporate strategist currently based in Bucharest. Their rift deepens when Winfried decides to pay a surprise visit to his daughter, waiting for hours in the lobby of her office building in the Romanian capital, just so he can insert those ridiculous teeth and put on goofy sunglasses when he sees Ines, flanked by male colleagues, in high-executive mode. Aghast, she pretends she doesn't see him -- an act that's as much a mask and performance as Winfried's.
Unhurried but exacting, Toni Erdmann shows us the moments too often stripped away in movies, the pauses and hesitations that from the crux of the indignities Ines suffers -- and inflicts -- in her daily life.