Jojo Rabbit (2019) – dir. Taika Waititi

I can’t remember how old I was when I realized is a vehicle for ideas, rather than just as a means of entertainment or sensationalism. Maybe this became clear during my brief obsession with “concept albums” when I was 11 or 12. Specifically, Green Day’s American Idiot and Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, both of which take a holistic approach to songwriting and storytelling within music to illustrate some larger, intangible story about what being a person means. But even into adulthood, I am continually excited by the myriad of ways artists can use variables right in front of us and turn them into something profound.

Of course, an artist wants people to relate to and experience their work. Talk to anyone who tells a World War II story, and they can’t help but lean into the significance of what this or that one event really meant for what is more or less the richest and most tumultuous era in modern history. That’s why practically every year, there’s a World War II film in the Oscar conversation. The impact still reverberates today. And with the rise of white supremacy and fascism, not even a beloved comedic filmmaker like Taika Waititi can resist getting in his take on The Big One.

Save for one of the stronger entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jojo Rabbit fits quite comfortably within the sensibilities of Waititi. His films have an impeccable sense of place, allowing one to easily imagine a much larger world around the admittedly small stories he tells. Waititi has a knack for melding crackerjack comedy with genuine pathos. Despite a vaguely controversial premise, there’s no real danger to Jojo Rabbit. In fact, Waititi may have bitten off more than he can chew, given how thinly-spread and unfocused his Holocaust comedy may be.

When we meet Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), he’s donning Hitler Youth attire, sheepishly reciting who he is and what he stands for in the mirror. In one of the films more effective touches, we see a much taller figure pacing around Jojo, circling him like a vulture. This is, in fact, Jojo’s imaginary best friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi, in a decidedly Tigger-esque turn as the Fuhrer). Hitler acts as a lighthearted moral sounding board for Jojo, pumping him up to be the best little Nazi Jojo can be. And at the start of the film, we see just how feverishly Jojo takes to Nazism, with an opening credits sequence over a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Comparing Nazism to Beatlemania is about the only halfway clever thing Jojo Rabbit has to say about fascism, even though the threat of SS and Gestapo loom over the film moving forward.

As retaliation for being taunted for not killing a rabbit, thus incurring the nickname “Jojo Rabbit,” and being quite literally hoisted by his own petard in a grenade-related accident at Nazi camp–because what are Nazis good for if not ruining camp for everyone?–Jojo’s more or less housebound after a sort of leg injury and facial scarring. We’re actually told, repeatedly, that Jojo is both badly disfigured and crippled, even though he appears to be perfectly fine–but whatever. So, instead, he goes about putting up posters for the Nazis, while his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johanssen) is working. Oh, and she’s harboring a Jewish girl in the walls of their house.

What follows is a tangled and ungainly second act that finds Jojo torn between trying to be a loyal Nazi, while not getting himself and his mother killed for hiding someone wanted by the party.  Jojo tries to straddle this line by hanging out with Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a former school friend of his recently deceased sister, who he’ll pretend not to know is there in exchange for information on the Jewish people for a book Jojo decides to write. The film gets a ton of mileage out of the outlandishly, absurdly antisemitic things Jojo and his fellow Nazis believe, not to mention the ways Elsa messes with Jojo. All of which comes to a head during a routine house inspection from the Gestapo–in which Stephen Merchant’s presence mixes some tension with a Spies Like Us-indebted “Heil Hitler” bit–followed by a protracted third act, whose centerpiece is an Ally-led invasion-cum-epiphany-for-Jojo. The close of the film absolutely deflates in every imaginable way, totally shafting key characters, and ending on a shrug of a note that is meant to be uplifting.

Jojo Rabbit really does try. Waititi front loads most of the stylistic touches within the first 20 minutes, but plays with color and composition in some fascinating ways. Moreover, there’s not a bad performance in sight, with exceptional supporting turns from Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant, and an almost poignant turn from Sam Rockwell–who serves as a sort of Lieutenant Dan Taylor to Jojo, as well as a sort of cautionary tale as to who Jojo could grow up to be. And Waititi is clearly having the time of his life as a goofy, yet progressively menacing Hitler. But no one is more magnetic than Scarlett Johanssen, who is a younger, sillier take on Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter. Johanssen is undeniably endearing, both as a heroic figure, and as the most loving and most fun parent ever. Jojo Rabbit is an awards player in the making, which is a shame on the whole, but will deservedly net a ton of attention for Johanssen. And for all the film’s faults, Jojo Rabbit is a deeply funny movie, the humor so quick that if one joke doesn’t land, another is sure to throw a sucker punch, with virtually none of the laughs in bad taste.

But when addressed with the nuances, or just a coherent message beyond, “fascism might’ve seemed okay at first but is actually pretty messed up,” Jojo Rabbit totally falters. One assumes that the film is meant to portray fascism from a child’s point of view, or to suggest that fascism, as a way of living, is childish. But just because something is infantile doesn’t mean there’s no rationale to why something so heinous is so widely adopted. Even children believe the things adults tell them, but not even that seems to exist in the movie. In fact, Jojo, from the onset, seems fairly reticent to adopt Nazisim at all. Meanwhile, Rosie is clearly not a Nazi sympathizer, and other than his peers and the marshal law enforcers, anyone who isn’t directly affected by the Third Reich is invisible and indifferent.

If there is anything that is offensive or disheartening about how Jojo Rabbit handles Nazism and the Holocaust, the film never dignifies the idea that fascism doesn’t come from nowhere. And yet, we are meant to identify with and believe in the humanity of fascists. Oh sure, we see the inherent toxicity and self-destructive nature of these phenomena. And we somewhat get a sense of how scary and costly doing the right thing can be. No one should expect Taika Waititi to solve populism or nationalism, but if the solution is to pad dark concepts and history with goofy bits and saccharine contrivances, that resistance can be boiled down to love and dancing, don’t make this movie. Not every film about serious topics needs to address those ideas with unflinching severity, but they should treat them honestly and thoroughly.

Jojo Rabbit is not the feel-good romp Waititi thinks he made. The film just isn’t thoughtful or disciplined enough. Though I hate to draw comparisons, plenty of movies about Nazi Germany or similar times prove that a film like Jojo Rabbit could undoubtedly work. Take Ernst Lubitsch’s achingly hilarious To Be or Not To Be, or the beautiful and tragic, and darkly hilarious The Tin Drum. Even Schindler’s List, a devastating, unyielding depiction of the Holocaust matched by virtually no other narrative feature film, is deeply funny. Last year, we had both BlacKkKlansman and The Death of Stalin, both of which find absurdity in nationalism and fascist abuse. All of these films find humor and often heart, while never undercutting the grave seriousness of the events they’re depicting. But Jojo Rabbit doubles down on the wrong things. Waititi so adamantly wants to offend no one that one can’t help feel the punches being pulled before their eyes. Maybe he just had nothing to say about Nazism. Maybe he thought dressing up and Mel Brooks-ifying Hitler and Nazi Germany would be so funny that everything else would fall into place from there. If Jojo Rabbit thinks they are brave or cutting, they’re one dumb bunny.

Rating – 4.3/10

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