Review: Jojo Rabbit

Director Taika Waititi sincerely tries to hedge his bets with his Oscar-nominated Nazi comedy by labeling it right off the bat as an “anti-hate satire,” which, of course, gives the impression that the New Zealand director, not-so-fresh off the success of his MCU Thor blockbuster, has only the best intentions when he depicts Hitler as a goof-ball and anti-Semitic propaganda as akin to MAGA-inspired cultural laziness or immaturity or both. And for sure, the movie’s relentlessly inventive stream of jokes that tap directly into our collective sense of how ridiculous that whole regime was, with its uniform fetishes and obsession with whiteness for the sake of whiteness, works a certain magic until you catch yourself wondering what you should make of a group of people hanged in a town square after summary trials for anti-Nazi activities. You’re obviously supposed to be appalled, but then you’re also supposed to fall right back into laughing at the silliness of it all.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with implementing such stark tonal shifts in order to provoke a reaction, but there isn’t enough originality in Waititi’s vision to make that reaction anything more than a reflex. Based on a novel published in 2008, Jojo Rabbit tells the story of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a dedicated Hitler Youth member who dutifully hates Jews and believes totally in all the ideas of the Third Reich. In his quaint little berg at the tail end of the war, however, he’s something of an odd duck, and earns his nickname at a camp after failing to kill a bunny when ordered to do so. The viewer is thus signaled to understand that Jojo isn’t quite the monster his belief system would make him out to be. In addition, he has devised for himself an imaginary friend who looks a lot like Der Fuhrer himself, and as played by the director he’s a cartoon caricature of Hitler, or, more exactly, the kind of nebbish that Mel Brooks would have concocted had he extrapolated the premise of The Producers to a full-fledged World War II comedy. This hallucinated Hitler is more evil Jiminy Cricket than playmate, and as the movie progresses and Jojo’s conscience is stimulated by outside events that challenge his received prejudices, the real conflict emerges, which is gratifying as far as it goes, but, again, we’re talking about a kid and his unformed intellect, which has been a product of a fairly sheltered life. This isn’t The Tin Drum.

In a sense, it’s a missed opportunity, because Jojo’s seemingly widowed mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is, we soon learn though Jojo doesn’t, a member of the underground resistance who is hiding a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a secret room in their house. Jojo’s entlightenment starts kicking in when he stumbles upon this girl and makes friends with her, thus confounding everything he has absorbed about Jews, though, at first, he resists mightily to the point where he almost exposes her to the local SS. Again, the narrative device feels reflexive and not credible within the frame of the story. Given Jojo’s proclivities, it’s not a given that he wouldn’t snitch on Elsa, but the premise of the movie demands he doesn’t.

That’s as deep as it goes, and while no one expects more from a comedy, the laughs become tiresome. Sam Rockwell plays a cynical local factotum who suspects Jojo’s self-doubt and lets it slide, because, hell, why not? Rebel Wilson is even more of a cypher, a female Nazi tool (she’s already produced 18 Aryan offspring) who is always game for humiliation. By the time the Americans and the Russians arrive the Germans have effectively ridiculed themselves into defeat.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Jojo Rabbit home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2019 Twentieth Cnetury Fox Film Corp. & TSG Entertainment Finance LLC

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