There are many more than just two actors in this very long (162 minutes), German-language, Oscar-nominated mixture of comedy, drama, and pathos. But don't worry. It flows so smoothly, it doesn't feel anywhere near that length; there's quite a bit of English dialogue to go along with the subtitled German; and because of what and who the film is about, it will suffice just to concentrate on its two main characters: Winfried Conradi AKA Toni Erdmann (only when he dons a dark, unkempt wig and some gnarly fake teeth), played by Austrian actor Peter Simonischek, and his daughter Ines, played by German actress Sandra Huller.
This offbeat, truly original piece of cinematic dramedy keeps the attention squarely on these two people and the relationship they've carved out for themselves in contemporary Bucharest, where glum, serious, unhappy Ines lives and makes a successful living as a corporate consultant, and where lonely, long-divorced music teacher Winfried comes to visit her after his dog dies.
The purpose of the visit might be to find some comfort over his loss, or it might be to patch up what was once a bond between father and daughter. That part's not clear, nor does it need to be, because it becomes a story of how both of these people go through some needed changes, all of them prompted by the unpredictable behavior of Dad.
Upon arriving in town, and not getting the warmest of welcomes, he, without any notice, adopts a new persona and name. He isn't the father of Ines, he isn't even Winfried; he's bewigged and fake-toothed Toni Erdmann, a "life coach" by trade, who's come to town to offer sage advice to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately (or, who knows, maybe fortunately) for Ines, the first person to whom he offers help is Ines' boss, the powerful CEO of her company.
It's suggested that Winfried has always been a practical joker, which might also be part of the reason that his Erdmann wardrobe is so outrageous, both in color and fit. And though he and Ines are at times able to sit and talk normally, he more often than not annoys the hell out of her, and all she can bring herself to do is be exasperated by him and keep his real identity a secret.
These are two very different sorts of people, and it's that fact that brings out both the humor and drama of the film. It's fascinating to watch the actions and reactions between them. The performances from each actor are faultless, and completely believable, even when those teeth move from pocket to mouth and Toni's actions approach buffoonery, even when Ines makes a snap decision to go through with a bout of nudity on unsuspecting party guests. Some would say that things get even weirder when Toni, for no plausible reason, dons a costume made of hair that would make a Wookie envious, then proceeds to go public with it.
Why do these two sympathetic people act the way they do? Why is she so serious about everything (even though it's clear that she has the ability to unwind), and why does he get so goofy at every opportunity? Perhaps they just can't help themselves. But that's not made clear, either. Yet by the end, something has happened between them, something that appears to involve real communication. There some serious talk, mostly by him, about life. And there's a glimmer that maybe, after all that they've gone through, she finally understands him ... or not.
-- Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Maren Ade
With Peter Simonischek, Sandra Huller