Toni Erdmann is a two-hour and 42-minute-long comedy in German, and I foreground that fact because I feel like if I went on and on about how completely wonderful it is, and only at the end got around to mentioning those facts, you would probably consider that I was trying to play a trick on you. So that's out in the open, and now we can move on to talking about how completely wonderful it is, and why everyone in the world should see it. Though if any combination of two of the descriptors "2:42 long", "comedy", and "German" (let alone all three) make it seem like it must be an unendurable slog, I confess that the movie possibly isn't going to end up being the world's easiest sit.

The film is the long-awaited-by-some-of-us third feature from director Maren Ade, whose work comes out at an unbearably languid pace: The Forest for the Trees came out in 2003 and the utterly caustic relationship drama Everyone Else (where I first encountered her) in 2009. Whatever she's been up to in those seven years, it was worth it: as good as Everyone Else was, Toni Erdmann blows it out of the sky in every way: the characters are more profoundly-etched, the social commentary more trenchant, the craftsmanship more confident, the sense of humor... well, it exists at all, which already puts this film in a different place than her other work. But it's also really funny, despite all of the evidence on paper making it sound like it shouldn't be funny at all.

This is, basically, the whole Zorba the Greek situation updated for the modern EU, with one painfully uptight woman, Ines Condradi (Sandra Hüller) trying to soullessly hack it in the business world while being beset by a wild, out-of-control free spirit who just wants her to be happy and learn to love life. That's already unfairly slicing out a huge subplot of the film, in which Ines is our window into the life of a smart professional woman attempting to navigate the specifically gendered pitfalls of live in multinational corporations, and if there wasn't already plenty to love about Toni Erdmann, this would be enough to put it over the top: that it mixes a broad family comedy in with a deadly serious consideration of sexism in the business world, such that the solutions to the problem of one genre end up being found in the other.

Anyway, the other huge subplot revolves around Winfried (Peter Simonischek), Ines's disreputable father, a music teacher and willfully immature aging hippie who delights in making people deeply uncomfortable with weird practical jokes, and who only really earnestly gives a shit about one thing: knowing that his daughter is happy and well, and that she knows that no matter what, she has his unconditional support and love. Naturally enough, as the film starts off, she is neither of those things and she either doesn't know that, or doesn't care, and so Winfried takes it upon himself to follow her to Bucharest, where he dive-bombs an immensely important meeting dressed in a staggeringly bad wig and false teeth, presenting himself as one Mr. Toni Erdmann, one of Europe's greatest secret business geniuses and consultants. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

No, for real. It ensues with a vengeance. That's another thing that pushes Toni Erdmann from "very good" to "the best": the way it's routinely able to extract great comedy from material that doesn't feel like it should be able to support it at all, and being funny as hell right at the same time that it's acutely painful. In any given scene between Winfried and Ines, which is certainly a huge percentage of the film's running time, there's a constant war between which character we're sympathetic to, and Ade isn't interested in deciding for us. So throughout much of the film, we're torn between finding Winfried a cringe-inducing embarrassment, or looking with fondness on his attempts to force Ines out of a self-destructive comfort zone, and that tension is itself laughter-inducing, if only out of a buildup of nervous energy in the viewer that has to go someplace.

That being said, insofar as the film takes sides, it takes Winfried's, and the general arc of the movie is of Ines moving to be less self-serious; not to abandon the business world, but to approach it with a healthier attitude that takes her own strength for granted, rather than feeling she has to prove herself to other people, which is all it takes to make this a much smarter, more insightful version of the story than so many other "free spirit shakes up a stick-in-the-mud" narratives. This is the lesson of the film's two great comic setpieces, which are both located near the ending and which I would despise myself for spoiling - I will say only that one of them is potentially my favorite nude scene in contemporary cinema, in no small part because of how tactically it deploys nudity as a means of controlling one's body, mind, and situation in the face of others' expectations. Also because it is astonishingly fucking hilarious, despite having a sitcom-level scenario underpinning it.

It helps that these moments come so late into the movie. Overall, Toni Erdmann uses duration to exceptionally good effect, making us wait and wait for any kind of rapprochement between the characters, waiting for Ines to crack in some way (it seems quite clear that Winfried, who has literally nothing left to lose in life - his dog dies near the film's beginning, because German comedy is upbeat and frivolous - is unlikely to cave in at any point), and finding it all the more rewarding that she finally does so. Ade's script neatly employs the characters against each other, and us: Winfried ends up being our surrogate as we join him in watching Ines's life with alarm and hope she drifts out of it, exactly the opposite of the message where we join her in being warmed by his attitudes towards life. It's quite clever, actually, and far more truthful than this kind of shticky scenario has any reason to be.

Also keeping the shtick tamped down is the fact that this is, when all is said and done, an austere German art film, made by a director whose last feature was an exhausting study in watching a romantic relationship dehydrate and die before our very eyes. Toni Erdmann is, by all means, a flawless piece of craftsmanship, as it would almost have to be: for the combination of slow cinema and broad comedy to work requires unnaturally precise editing and perfectly chosen frames that allow the jokes to maneuver their way into shot. And editor Heike Parplies and cinematographer Patrick Orth oblige by being as excellent in their roles as Ade is in hers, carefully managing the pacing and tone of the visuals so that the humor can have the best possible effect (which is, often as not, a matter of completely random situation suddenly arriving in what would otherwise feel like the severest kind of naturalism; certainly, the film's big musical number is funny in no small part because it arrives without warning and is presented with absolute deadpan sincerity).

The whole thing is, basically, perfect: impeccably-made cinema with a pair of smart messages hiding inside the driest, funniest movie of the year. Simonischek and Hüller do fantastic work in playing the emotionally rancorous beats of a family drama with the reaction shots of the world's tackiest three-camera sitcom, and her comic timing especially is something close to a miracle. The length and language both argue against this becoming any kind of hit in the United States, which is the sorriest thing I can think of; in a year that's been long on very good films and short on very excellent ones, Toni Erdmann is one of 2016's greatest contributions to the annals of cinema.