A Dad Joke is a funny thing. Well, not funny, exactly -- that's the one thing a Dad Joke never is. Whether a dumb pun, a goofy accent, or a silly riff on a troubling event, this peculiar brand of attempted humor is passed on from a father to his offspring like family silverware. It exists to remind us that dads have a sacred duty to be silly and strange for their children's sake, to create a little shared universe of forced laughter and groans where both generations can retreat from the cold.
The remarkable new German-Austrian comedy Toni Erdmann is the Citizen Kane of Dad Jokes. Writer-director Maren Ade liberates these laffy-taffies into the world of high art. She builds her story around a father who will go to absurd, inscrutable lengths for a laugh, even though he rarely ever gets one. He makes liberal use of props, among them whoopee cushions, cheese graters, handcuffs, shaggy wigs, and one immortal set of giant false teeth, which he keeps in his shirt pocket and pops into his mouth at the slightest moment of tension. He will gladly wait half a day to spring a two-second "gotcha" gag. And over the film's nearly three-hour running time, he does battle with the humorless corporate world that has swallowed his daughter whole and is threatening to come for us all.
At the outset, it certainly seems like corporate is winning. When we first meet Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a retired music teacher, he lives alone with a pacemaker and a sickly dog, crafting elaborate fictions for a package courier just to amuse himself. He once was close with his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), but she's all grown up and distant now, working for a consulting firm whose job is to tell companies they should lay off workers to save money. Ines does well, but she's miserable: constantly undermined by her male superiors, she resorts to drugs and empty sex to amuse herself, and disappears into her work so she doesn't have to think about how far she's drifted from her own soul.
Once his dog dies, Winfried makes a spontaneous visit to Ines's office in Bucharest, prattling on about the importance of fun and happiness in life. The weekend soon turns toxic, overtaken by Ines's work functions and her seeming inability to recall anything that makes her happy. "I know men your age with ambitions," she seethes at him. A saddened poppa takes his leave... but then out comes the wig and false teeth, and voilà, "Toni Erdmann" is showing up at her office and social gatherings with a different kind of ambition: to wreak havoc.