Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann shouldn't work as well as it does. At nearly three hours in length, the German comedy veers in tone through outrageous gags and wry social satire to heartwarming family drama, all in set pieces that build long past Hollywood conventions of where a scene should end. It's a rare film that justifies its length through sheer inventiveness, a comic treat that finds real human emotion in unexpected places.
Stars Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hueller, an estranged father-daughter pair forced to endure each other on a working vacation, carry the film. Simonischek plays Winfried Conradi, an aging man who likes to play ridiculous pranks on his friends by dressing up in absurd costumes. Over the years, his daughter Ines has drifted away, tired of his antics and increasingly frustrated by setbacks at work. He decides to surprise Ines by joining her on a business trip to Romania, in hopes of reconnecting with her. Giving away any more of the plot would almost be unfair, but Simonischek and Hueller give two of the best performances of the year, slowly pulling back tiny details about their lives that reveal two very broken, creative, real people.
Ade has constructed a beautiful film of movements, allowing her two leads to drift in and out of the narrative at intersecting points in a high-wire balancing act that allows us to get to know these characters better each time they collide. Oftentimes, the phrase "you'll laugh, you'll cry" describes a certain kind of eye-rolling conventionality, but Toni Erdmann earns every emotion, as it builds towards a truly breathtaking conclusion that defies easy description.
It's rare for a film to live up to its status as "the talk of Cannes" by the time it makes its debut over here at TIFF, but Ade has to be commended for delivering an instant classic. Toni Erdmann is one of the year's best films.