Winfried (Peter Simonischek) used to be a music teacher in schools, and considers himself to have a great sense of humour which is why he believes he gets on with children so well. However, after pranking a delivery man for his own pleasure, he is knocked by the announcement from his teenage protégé who took piano lessons from him that the boy does not wish to learn the instrument further, and would rather not see him anymore. Add to that the fact his beloved dog is getting very old and past it, and is likely better off put to sleep, and things are not as rosy as he would like them to be, the sense that he is the last man with any humour at all pressing on him. This leads him to consider his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) - he hasn't seen her in ages.
On the surface Toni Erdmann was a straightforward comedy about an elderly gent who thinks he is a lot funnier than anyone else around him does, and that state of affairs is thrown into sharp relief when he decides to cheer up his workaholic offspring. But writer and director Maren Ade had a deeper agenda, and with that in mind she took as long as she could to make it plain, something that could have been accused of overexplaining her premise and themes, but in effect over the two hours and forty minutes (!) this took to unfold, it did not seem as long as that at all, indeed so often did this catch you off guard that if you surrendered to it you would find it weirdly engrossing.
Weird being the operative word, for Ade had been inspired by her relationship with her own father in the creation of Winfried, but also one of the unique comedians of the twentieth century, Andy Kaufman. He took great delight in carrying on his act to lengths that most reasonable people would find insane, almost as if he was trying to generate as much intolerance and hatred of his personas as he was trying to make his audience laugh. Needless to say, his cult continues to this day thanks to his fascinating, far too short life, since he seemed to pioneer the prank comedians but also stood apart from them, bringing a curious philosophical angle to his material that had you questioning the entire nature and essence of comedy. Was it still funny if nobody was laughing?
This dedication was fed into Winfried, whose trick is to slip in a set of comedy teeth and become his comic persona, but as the story progressed his endeavours grew ever more serious in his pursuit of making someone laugh. The fact that hardly anyone does, not even himself, suggested he was getting this whole humour thing utterly wrong, but that reckoned without the audience watching the movie who it was proved quite often found his deadpan antics hilarious. And they were, once the establishing and settling in of the narrative was presented, somehow going past lazy cringe comedy where you would laugh because someone has, I don't know, lost their dignity in a public place, and onto something far more absurdist. That this turned weirder and weirder until unleashing a sequence so out there that it was difficult to know how to sensibly react was a balancing act that Ade managed with great skill.
But you know jokes, not everyone is going to get your sense of humour, assuming you or they have one at all, and as the old saying goes the biggest test of that is being told you do not have one. Ines might think she does, but she does not, she is too caught up in her job to think about kicking back and relaxing with a laugh, which means when she tries to be funny she ends up downright peculiar, as much at sea in trying to cheer up those around her as her father is when he attempts it (the cake scene and the song demonstrated this, bizarre and sidesplitting by turn). When he visits her in Bucharest, unannounced, she is tolerant but really needs to get back to a deal which will see her company in a hiring and firing role, mostly firing, for corporations who don't wish to get their hands dirty and treat her with sexist expectation, which is about as far from amusing as it's possible to get without killing somebody, and given she's ruining people's hopes for work she might as well be.
Was Winfried, who adopts the Toni persona to wind her up, a fitting fate for Ines? Because every time someone makes a joke here, the feeling of whistling in the dark was invoked, and we had to query why bother at all. Everyone here was isolated from everyone else in this modern world, reaching out could not be heartfelt and involve a sincere dedication to affection, it had to be a gag or a business deal. It painted a bleak picture - but then we realised we had been laughing, and maybe all was not lost. Its magic was slow, but the cumulative power was impressive to behold as it moved into its third hour and somehow, against the odds, Ines rediscovers her humanity through her love for a father who was never technically estranged from her, they never had a falling out, it's simply that adulthood had her adopt a role where her parent was meaningless in the past ways he had lightened her life when she was a child. In effect, it was bizarrely moving, this revelation, especially coming hot on the heels of around fifteen minutes of utterly confounding but delirious filmmaking. You imagine Kaufman would have approved as there was little like Toni Erdmann out there either.