A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2019

JOJO RABBIT jj
 

2019, R, 108 mins.

 

Roman Griffin Davis as Johannes "Jojo" Betzler  /  Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa Korr  /  Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler  /  Scarlett Johansson as Rosie Betzler  /  Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf  /  Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm  /  Alfie Allen as Sub-Officer Finkel

Written and directed by Taika Waititi, based on the novel by Christine Leunens

JOJO RABBIT is director Taika Waititi's newest self described "anti-hate satire" that tries to wag a sarcastic finger of shame at Nazi Germany.  The very idea of making a comedy about something that drums up endless nightmarish thoughts about a brutal historical regime and time period may not be everyone's cup of tea, but JOJO RABBIT is certainly not the first time that a filmmaker has tackled the Third Reich in a comedic vein (see Charlie Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR, Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS, or Roberto Benigni's LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL).  

JOJO RABBIT is most certainly ambitious and more than bit daring for the THOR: RAGNAROK and HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE director, but it emerged for me as a disappointing mixed bag.  It features some truly exceptional performances (especially from its two young leads) and has individual moments of greatness, but it's so tonally schizophrenic that Waititi can never seem to decide whether he's making (a) a war satire, (b) a wacky comedy of errors farce, or (c) a solemn Holocaust era coming of age drama.   

It's all too bad, because there's a truly great film buried underneath Waititi's shaky approach to the overall material here.  The New Zealand filmmaker has made a relative career out of embracing eccentric absurdity, but in JOJO RABBIT it seems that Waititi's unbridled enthusiasm for the film is kind of undone by his undisciplined and unfocused handling of it, which leaves the whole enterprise feeling like a well meaning misfire that never fully feels like it gels cohesively together to create a satisfying total package.  Granted, making a war time era film about Nazis from a child's perspective is, not doubt, a daunting challenge, not to mention that Waititi commendably tries to make JOJO RABBIT a rallying cry for understanding and ultimately cultural acceptance of others (themes that are definitely topical more than ever today).  It's just his blending of irreverent and oddball comedy and serious ideas about genocide, war, and the demonization of an entire race that just seems...well...off balance throughout.  The whiplash effect on viewers here is dissatisfyingly high. 

The film opens by introducing us to its young protagonist in the ten-year-old JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis, a remarkable find), who's living under Nazi Germany and mostly feels lonely, isolated, and sad that his mother in Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn't have much time for him (which probably has something to do with the fact that she secretly works for the resistance).  Poor Jojo takes solace in two things: Firstly, he's a proud and eager member of a young military group of cadets that want to prove their worth to the Fuehrer and, secondly, he has a loyal and supportive imaginary friend in...the Fuehrer himself, Adolf Hitler (Waititi), who materializes out of thin air and serves as a playful and colorful companion that only Jojo can see and hear.   The young Nazi-to-be has a horrendous time during his training, and is very quickly let go from service by his commanding officer, Captain Klenzendorf (a reliably droll Sam Rockwell), after he nearly killed himself in a live grenade toss gone horribly wrong.  With nothing but ample free time, Jojo spends his days at home, and on one fateful day he makes a shocking discovery: A teenage Jewish girl named Elsa (LEAVE NO TRACE's superb Thomasin McKenzie) has been stowing away in his house to escape what would probably be a death sentence for her.  At first, Jojo looks at this girl with deeply suspicious and hurtful eyes, but the more time they spend together the fonder he grows of her, eventually shedding his once preconceived notions about Jews being devilish monsters. 

 

 

On of a level of comedy, there's no doubt that JOJO RABBIT is riotously funny at times, which is in large thanks to the gifted manner that Waititi has with ultra dry humor and wanton weirdness.  There's a great running gag throughout the film about the obsessively strange way that everyone says "Heil Hitler" to once another, which sometimes comes off as the only dialogue amidst the conversation exchange between multiple parties.  One sight gag involving German shepherds also scores huge laughs.  The best moment of go-for-the-jugular satire occurs during the film's bravura opening main titles, during which time we get archival footage of fanatical followers at Nazi rallies while a German sung version of The Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" blares eerily, but amusingly, in the background.  Less refined, but still funny, is Waititi's performance as the imaginary Hitler that pops up constantly in Jojo's mind, and the director has a field day portraying him as an all out buffoon that dispenses horribly blunt advice at all times.  "You're a little bit scrawny, and a bit unpopular, and you can't tie your shoelaces," he calmly relays to the boy, "But you're still the bestest and most loyal little Nazi I've ever met." 

There's some interesting subplots at play here in the film as well, especially for how Rockwell's Klenzendorf seems like a really, really, beyond-obviously closeted gay man that has the burden of not coming out because...he's a Nazi.  He has to bolster up all of the courage and will power he can from not passionately kissing his right hand man (Alfie Allen) in front of everyone.  He also has a hysterically bleak outlook on his country's chances in the war ("Even though it would appear that our nation is on the back foot, and there really isn't much hope for us, apparently we're doing just fine!").  The best character arcs are between Jojo and his new Jewish crush in Elsa, which is really complicated by the fact that he has essentially grown up to despise people of her kind...but for reasons he grows to realize are petty and silly.  Even Johansson's mother to Jojo is fairly well realized in the narrative, who has to outwardly and publicly display encouragement to her son's wishes to become a Nazi while covertly working against everything they represent.  All of these performances are uniformly stellar, especially with McKenzie and Davis, the latter making his feature film debut in a remarkably tricky performance for such an inexperienced actor; his chemistry with McKenzie is so joyously unforced and natural, and Waititi once again shows his affinity for generating solid work from a young cast. 

My real problem, though, with JOJO RABBIT that frustratingly holds it back from achieving real greatness is the haphazard manner that Waititi segues between warm and inviting scenes of comic mischief and dark dramatic moments that try to pack a devastating emotional wallop.  There's a thematic density to the screenplay here and you gain the impression that Waititi has an awful lot he wants to say in the film, but just not a cohesive manner of tackling and relaying them.  Maybe it has something to do with JOJO RABBIT lacking real raw nerve as a go-for-broke satire.  Despite the fact that it delves into one of the most horrific periods and dictators of the 20th Century, the film never comes off as truly subversive and a daring risk taking venture.  And if you exclude the brilliant aforementioned main titles that opened the film, JOJO RABBIT doesn't have much nerve as a bleak satire for the most part.  Yes, the film tackles the limitlessly ridiculous cruelty of anti-Semitism that's purely born out of learned (or forcibly taught, in Jo Jo's case) hatred.  Jo Jo slowly learns that Jews don't, in fact, have horns on their heads and aren't scary mythical beasts that are destroying Germany.  They are people too.  These are good and noble minded messages, but JOJO RABBIT is so soft pedaled and achingly safe in its execution of them, and the more is a bit to quirky and quaint in a Wes Anderson kind of way for its own good. 

JOJO RABBIT is funny in the rights dosages when required, and sometimes dramatically shocking in a few other instances (the reveal of the dreadful fate of one key character is orchestrated with great tact that still coveys a level of unspeakable heartbreaking loss), but it's so idiosyncratic and untidy overall that it never manages to fully become either a magnificent comedy or work of searing drama.  The problematic final moments of JOJO RABBIT also strike a largely false and manipulative note, even though some may come out of the film thinking it's a great rousing and feel-good conclusion preaching the positive lessons of tolerance.  To me, it seemed like an artificially cute moment of euphoric good cheer after these characters have experienced first hand the multiple facets of the horrors of war and Nazi Germany.  JOJO RABBIT wants to contain moments of high hilarity, edgy satire, and tragic drama, but Waititi never really seems to know how to effectively pour them into his cinematic mixing bowl with any refinement.  

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