Jojo Rabbit (New Zealand/Czech Republic, 2019)November 02, 2019
It’s not hard to understand how something like Jojo Rabbit might divide audiences. Comedies about Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich can be difficult to sell, even if there’s an underlying seriousness to the subject matter. Writer/director Taika Waititi’s intentions are to italicize the stupidity of racism and underscore the importance of understanding; to do this, he employs humor and absurdity hand-in-hand with the occasional dark gut-punch. The problem with Waititi’s approach, not unlike those faced by Roberto Benigni 22 years ago when he made the divisive Life Is Beautiful, is perfecting the tonal shifts. His difficulties in this area can create a whiplash effect that results in the overall production feeling a little “off.” One leaves the theater vaguely disconcerted, as if the movie almost achieved its goals but didn’t quite succeed.
Jojo Rabbit follows the misadventures of a ten-year old boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), growing up in Nazi-era Germany. Lonely and feeling neglected – his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), covertly works for the resistance and his father is somewhere overseas – Jojo finds a sense of belonging by joining a military youth group. His imaginary friend is none other than the Fuhrer (Waititi), albeit a clownish echo of the megalomaniac dictator. Unfortunately for Jojo, he is not adept at military training and, after he nearly blows himself up with a mis-aimed grenade, his commanding officer, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), dismisses him from service. With little else to do, he hangs around at home. His snooping uncovers something surprising: a teenage Jewish refugee, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), whom his mother has offered shelter. Although initially hostile and suspicious, Jojo’s perceptions change the more time he spends with the girl.
Individual scenes work when watched in isolation. Some of the comedy is effective – I laughed out loud during a scene in which there’s a seemingly endless repetition of “Heil Hitler!” – and the Nazis are mercilessly skewered. Waititi’s Hitler is a tour de force of loutish idiocy, an extreme caricature consistently made to look foolish. Dramatically, the film is on less certain ground although one scene in particular is wrenching in its suddenness and impact. There are issues with the ending – by trying too hard to be heartfelt and uplifting, it gives off a vibe that’s forced and artificial. But the critical flaw evident throughout Jojo Rabbit is its inability to skillfully shift from tragedy to satire and back again. The ingredients are appetizing but the final mixture curdles. Other critics have likened the movie to something Wes Anderson might have made and it’s a fair comparison. Anderson’s misfires feel an awful lot like this one.
As is often the case in movies like this, the strongest acting comes from the least recognizable names. Roman Griffin Davis, making his feature debut, holds his own in scenes with A-list performers. The chemistry he shares with Thomasin McKenzie (the girl from last year’s Leave No Trace) is strong, especially late in the proceedings. Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell are solid in supporting roles, with the former doing a mostly-dramatic reading and the latter in top comedic form. Rebel Wilson is a bit too broad but I suppose that’s her strong suit. Waititi’s intentionally over-the-top performance makes his Hitler a scene-stealer.
Throughout his career, which has included the off-putting Eagle vs. Shark, the critically-lauded Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and the big-budget Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi has never shied away from venturing down the unconventional road, so the chances he takes with Jojo Rabbit, whether they work or not, are entirely in keeping with his character. Like Life Is Beautiful, Jojo Rabbit falls afoul of tonal inconsistencies which can be especially detrimental in a story with its roots so deeply embedded in an abhorrent historical episode.
Jojo Rabbit (New Zealand/Czech Republic, 2019)
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates
Home Release Date: 2020-02-18
Screenplay: Taika Waititi, based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens
Cinematography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
U.S. Release Date: 2019-11-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Thematic Elements, Profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
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