Directed by Taika Waititi
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie
Jojo Rabbit bills itself as an “anti-hate satire”—a clunky ad line if I ever heard one. It’s both obvious and abstract, like calling yourself pro-vacation. It’s also a bit of false advertising: In movies like What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Thor: Ragnarok, the New Zealand-born director Taika Waititi doesn’t so much satirize his subjects as unleash his prankish sense of humor on them. True satire has bite—a merciless instinct for deflating its subject—and Jojo Rabbit, at best, has two buck teeth.
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Once you disengage from the idea that Jojo Rabbit is a satire, you’ll have fewer problems with it. When you watch the opening credits with the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” playing over footage of Nazis doing the “Heil, Hitler!” salute, you might even be forgiven for thinking you’d dropped in on a hipster take on Fascism. But really, Jojo Rabbit is the story of a little boy named Johannes (the amazing Roman Griffin Davis) living in a small German town during the waning days of World War II, so weaned on Nazi propaganda and dogma that, with an absent father figure, he conjures up the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler (played by the director), as an imaginary friend.
Matters get complicated when, forced to take leave of a Hitler Youth camp after a grenade disfigures his face (but not too badly, mind you), Johannes discovers that his mother Rosie (the Oscar-nominated Scarlett Johansson), a fraulein with the progressive views of a ‘40s Elizabeth Warren, has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) behind a panel in his sister’s bedroom. From this point onwards, Jojo Rabbit takes on the familiar contours of a coming-of-age story, as Jojo’s innocent acceptance of everything he’s been told about the enemy clashes with the reality hunkered down in his home.
Some of the jokes strain to reach their mark (Waititi’s imaginary Hitler has a habit of speaking in anachronistic lingo such as “Correctamundo!”), while some of the topical humor lands. At one point, Jojo demands that Elsa tutor him on the intricacies of Jewish people. “We’re like you,” she sniffs at him, “but human.” Later on, a Gestapo official played by the Lurch-like Stephen Merchant enters Johannes’ bedroom and, upon seeing the Nazi paraphernalia festooned on the walls, approvingly declares, “Now this is my kind of little boy’s room.” Elsewhere, you’ll find one-dimensional caricatures in Sam Rockwell’s disheveled Captain Klenzendorf, a Wehrmacht officer who lost an eye now relegated to grunt duty among kids and the wounded, and Rebel Wilson’s Fraulein Rahm, a patriotic assistant whose roly poly figure can’t quite support her war freak tendencies. Archie Yates, as Jojo’s best friend Yorki, is an absolute scene-stealer.
And then things get darker, and Waititi struggles to fit his goofball comedy within the larger context of tragedy. This is where his ambition fails him, because he took what was by all accounts an unfunny book (Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies) and figured he could use it to poke fun at Fascists the way he poked fun at nocturnal bloodsuckers in What We Do in the Shadows. But Waititi lacks the courage of his convictions: He can’t pull off the moral downer that is the book’s ending, and so he softens it for mass consumption.
I don’t particularly like Jojo Rabbit. It aspires to walk a tightrope of tone and subject matter, but struggles to balance its ambition with its crowd-pleasing impulses. Ultimately, it falls into the trap of being a middlebrow fiction—a riff on Life Is Beautiful with a little less of Roberto Benigni’s irritating sap and a little more attitude. Still, if it teaches today’s audiences about the dangers of mob-think and the emergent threat of the extreme Right, then Jojo Rabbit will have hop, skipped and jumped into its own reason for being.
Jojo Rabbit is now playing exclusively at Ayala Malls cinemas
Photographs from Fox Searchlight