Papa don't preach
Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann on paper sounds like that most tiresome of tales: a free spirit goosing up a prig's life, teaching her how to relax, be in the moment, grow a sense of humor. Basically the plot of half of Robin Williams' movies (though for the record the films by Michael Richie, Terry Gilliam and Robert Altman I liked), Steve Martin's (though his collaborations with Herbert Ross, Fred Schepsi, and Carl Reiner I liked), John Candy's, a host of other Hollywood comedians.
Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) teaches grade school music and is an incorrigible somewhat disturbing prankster--early on for example he makes his face up as a ghoul to pay tribute to a departing teacher; later at a lunch with family (and still wearing the makeup) he informs them that he has a side job at a retirement home--50 euros per death. His daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) is an ambitious up-and-comer in an international consulting firm, constantly on the cell phone, constantly traveling to other countries. The two aren't close: Winfried and his wife divorced and Ines grew up with her mother. Winfried only finds out at the lunch that Ines is celebrating her birthday early and has no gift for her; Ines in turn is palpably uneasy talking to him. When Ines flies to Bucharest for an important meet Winfried suddenly pops up at her office lobby to deliver his promised birthday gift, announcing that he's staying a month; Ines scrambles to close the deal and accommodate her dad at the same time.
If Ade largely avoids the pitfalls of the genre that's no small achievement. Peter Rainer at The Christian Science Monitor wonders at the oddity of a German comedy and wonders further if perhaps this is why most critics are rapturous about the picture; I think it's a tad more interesting than that. Simonischek, a hulking bristly man, doesn't play Winfried the way an accomplished comedian would; his schtick is more awkward than polished, his hunched massive frame half-ready to apologize for whatever absurdity he's about to commit, and he often gives up or admits it's a joke part of the way through; folks react with a blank face, unsure what to say, then give a polite nervous chuckle. It's like Open Mike night at the local comedy club: someone steps up halfway sure he's going to bomb, and you can't help but clap in embarrassed sympathy.