There are a few ways I could describe 2016's Toni Erdmann. If it were possible to make a satire of satire, it might be something like this film. Or maybe it's better to say it is drama's love letter to comedy. Bitterness is part of the film but there's nothing mean spirited about it, in fact it's terribly, wonderfully heart-felt and yet has such a gentle, humanist touch. It's a quietly beautiful revelation of the human mind by reflecting its creations; comedy, art, family, and business.
The concept sounds like a fairly commonplace Martin Lawrence or Robin Williams comedy from the 90s--in fact, Williams would have probably loved the role of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a laid back older man with a penchant for pulling pranks. His daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), is an aggressive businesswomen who, like many young, success oriented women in 90s comedies, seems to have lost a proper sense of priorities as she spends an entire family gathering focused on work, talking on the phone. So Winfried decides to visit her where she lives in the city and infiltrates her business circles disguised as the cheesy, slightly sleazy, Toni Erdmann.
But unlike Mrs. Doubtfire or another similar 90s films, Toni Erdmann applies more realistic logic to the scenario. Winfried's disguise basically consists of false teeth and a wig and his rap generally doesn't fool people--people play along like you do with a man dressed as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, but the extraordinary context for Toni Erdmann makes him particularly amusing to Ines' business acquaintances and to Ines herself, despite her initial irritation.
The very serious business that Winfried thinks she's too caught up in is her job at a consulting firm. We learn that she's in the middle of a job for a company who's primarily hired her to be a scapegoat for an effort to outsource jobs, requiring the firing of many already impoverished workers in Romania.
On one level the film skewers the presumption of older films that the prankster character is right in thinking the "straightman" character has his or her priorities wrong just because he happens to be getting less attention. But thankfully the film isn't that broad or that simple.
The film even has the old handcuff gag where Winfried cuffs himself to his daughter and pretends to lose the key. But she simply takes him to another part of town and has the locked picked then takes him along with her for the day. She has him pose as an associate and brings him to an oil field where he comes in direct contact with some of the workers whose livelihoods depend upon how his daughter does things, and whose jobs she's inevitably going to have to take away. Along with undermining the presumption of the prankster character of the 90s comedy, Winfried is forced to realise that his belief in a more carefree lifestyle is the product of his economic privilege.
But Ines has no desire to hurt her father. In fact, the most painful thing of all may be that she desperately wants him to be right. In an already famous scene, she's inspired by his antics to throw a spontaneous nude brunch for her co-workers under the pretext of a trust exercise. The scene is intensely funny and its humour is directly related to the heart of the film.
Director Maren Ade, who with this film became the first female director to win top honours at the European film awards, has said in interviews that she did not intend to make the movie as a feminist argument, and Ines does have a funny line when she's talking to her boss where she says something like, "If I were a feminist I wouldn't be dealing with you." But Ade does describe the conflict between Ines and Winfried as being in essence "man-woman" and maybe when she refers to not being feminist she means it in a more modern sense of "anti-man." It's hard not to see a very feminist line of thought in her discussion of the nude brunch in interviews like this one.
I found it interesting that I think that her becoming naked helped her to get a higher status than before because it’s so courageous. It made her stronger in that moment and not weake. In the first moment, how it starts, maybe she’s a bit ashamed but then it’s a strong gesture to do that. So this was something that through inviting nudity on everyone who witnesses her nudity, I found interesting that she finds herself and gets more self aware again.
Many people have commented that the scene isn't sexual, but of course it is. It's more accurate to say that it reveals the truth behind certain presumptions of sexuality, as when Ines' boss is clearly discomforted by his own arousal when looking at Ines' hot young assistant he'd been lusting after earlier in the film. I won't give away the perfectly timed gag that ends the scene.
Another reason the film is so effective is for its over two and a half hour run time that is used for a lot of very quiet transition scenes. This allows the characters to breathe in each others' space in a very effective way that underlines the fundamental mono no aware of the film. It's like a Yasujiro Ozu movie with an extremely effective use of "Plainsong" by The Cure.