Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Taika Waititi’s hotly-anticipated anti-hate satire is an odd duck.
If you’re across the Kiwi creator’s career in particular, or even cool kine in general, you’ll know the gist: towards the end of World War II apple-cheeked cherub and committed Nazi Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) contends with all the world can throw at him — which is a lot, to be frank — with the help of his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). 10-year-old Jojo isn’t really cut out for Nazi life; unlike some of the nascent psychopaths in their Hitlerjugend troop, he and best mate Yorki (Archie Yates, the film’s real find) are just 10-year-old kids caught up in something bigger than themselves, and not really au fait with the real meaning behind all this goose-stepping, heiling, and, to quote Sam Rockwell’s foppish, soused Captain Klenzendorf, ‘blowing schtuff up.’
Jojo’s true nature and his idealized Nazi self-image are on a collision course, as if we couldn’t tell by his failure to kill a cute little bunny at the orders of an older Jugend bell end (the source of the cruel titular nickname). Things hit crisis when he discovers that his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their home. What will Jojo do? More importantly, what will Hitler think?
Adapted by Waititi from the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, as a film Jojo Rabbit is not a dramedy but a drama and a comedy by turns, with the comedic elements forefronted in the film’s early stages, while drama is heightened as the narrative progresses. The mix is imprecise and not always effective; while we get plenty of opportunities to laugh at the ludicrous beliefs of the National Socialists, and the film gets plenty of mileage out of contrasting the constrained worldview of children with the largely implied horrors of the Nazi regime, it’s actually Waititi’s turn as Jojo’s imaginary Hitler that’s the film’s weakest link — an element just a tad too fantastical and forced to work in the milieu the film presents us with. Like a low-key Robin Williams Genie in Disney’s animated Aladdin (1992), Waititi’s Führer drops into a modern-day patois on several occasions, a move which plays up the artificiality of the film and works to undercut the more dramatic beats.
Of which there are plenty — Jojo Rabbit swerves hard from goofy Nazi hijinks to public hangings and what have you, again and again, a tonal whiplash that really takes the wind out of you. One moment we’re giggling at Rockwell’s closeted wounded warrior (he and adjutant Alfie Allen are clearly lovers and get less concerned with concealing the fact as Berlin prepares for the Allied onslaught) or Rebel Wilson’s enthusiastic true believer Fräulein Rahm, the next … well, that would be telling. It works most of the time; there’s a staginess, an almost pantomime tone to the comedy, and you can see what Waititi is going for — Nazis, after all, deserve ceaseless mockery at minimum, and as portrayed here they are certainly a buffoonish bunch — however, too often the tone is off by a few small but crucial degrees. But then the film socks you with an emotional wallop or a belly laugh, and we’re back on an even keel. Still, the ship lists.
What does work is the sense of mounting tension as the horrors of the world encroach on Jojo’s little fantasy world. The film is set just prior to the fall of Berlin, and from our privileged position in the audience, we know that any day now American and Russian troops are going to be swarming through the city and not being particularly concerned about who’s in the crossfire. Nazi Germany’s straitened position is played for queasy laughs: tubby, adorable Yorki is recruited into the Wehrmacht, old cripples charge into battle on shaky legs, and at one point Wilson’s matronly fanatic sticks a live grenade down a kid’s pants and instructs him to give the nearest American dogface a big hug (check the history books —the fall of Germany was a goddamn rolling nightmare, and all of this stuff is on point).
These moments are striking in their mix of horror and hilarity; it’s when the film flip-flops from one to the other that it skips a groove. Irrespective, there’s so much to enjoy here. Rockwell’s cynical, one-eyed drunkard is a standout, and it’s fun to see Stephen Merchant, Fighting with My Family (2019), embody bland, bureaucratic evil as a Gestapo agent who drifts in and out of the action to provide some uneasily comical menace. Thomasin McKenzie, who made the world really sit up and take notice with her turn as Ben Foster’s daughter in Leave No Trace (2018), does similarly assured and nuanced work here as Elsa, who has her own rather more sanguine fantasies in place to protect her from the grim realities of her situation, and newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is perfectly cast as Jojo who is, as Elsa skewers him, not a Nazi but ‘… a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.’ There’s a palpable energy and verve to the proceedings, an inventiveness in the staging and framing that is deliciously fun.
Yet I’m stuck with the feeling that I should love it more, or at the very least, that I don’t love it the way other commentators do (I’m a massive fan of Waititi’s work and came to this one predisposed to gush). Jojo Rabbit’s a good film, don’t get me wrong, and you can’t fault its ambitions or its huge heart, but it doesn’t quite nail the task it sets itself the way What We Do in the Shadows (2014) or Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) do. This is Waititi stretching himself as a creator rather than resting on his considerable laurels, which can only ever be a good thing, but carries with it the risk of not quite bulls-eyeing the target. But hey, the pros outweigh the cons by a large margin, and laughing at Nazis is always a worthwhile investment of your time.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson