Release: Friday, November 8, 2018
Written by: Taika Waititi
Directed by: Taika Waititi
New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi has always been the magic elixir to make things better.
Viago the vampire was one of my favorite characters in the frightfully funny comedy What We Do in the Shadows (2015). In 2017 he gave the MCU a whack of feisty, vibrant energy with Thor: Ragnarok. His goofy humor had the kind of impact that gets directors invited to do another one. He’ll release Thor: Love and Thunder in 2021. It’s also the mainstream breakthrough he needed to make his “anti-hate satire” possible, with Jojo Rabbit collecting dust on a shelf since 2011. If Ragnarok had not received the response that it did, all bets are off the ones cutting the checks would have confidence in the director pulling off a Nazi-bashing black comedy.
Loosely based on Christine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, Jojo Rabbit is an undeniably heartfelt movie about how love, compassion and optimism can be the tools in fighting against hatred and prejudice. Similarly, Waititi’s infectious spirit and cutting wit are his most powerful weapons in combatting the cliches of his story. The fact and manner in which he plays Adolf Hitler — as the childish, imaginary friend of our embattled pretend-Nazi Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) — is the defining characteristic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s certainly what gives the movie an edginess. He’s portrayed as a doofus with the maturity level to match the kid who thinks of the Führer as more mate than maniacal monster.
The native New Zealander is neither the first filmmaker to pair comedy with Nazism nor the first to receive flak for doing so. He is, however, the first filmmaker who identifies as a Polynesian Jew to not only don the ugly garb and horrendous hairstyle of the German dictator but to attempt to undermine his authority by playing him as a complete bozo. There are nuances to his performance that have been overlooked amidst the scathing criticism he’s faced by appearing to downplay the threat of Hitler. Au contraire, Waititi isn’t afraid of unleashing his character’s vitriol. As the story progresses his performance intensifies, becomes more bullying and scary.
Whether in front of the camera or behind it Waititi is conscious to balance the silly with the somber. There is persecution in Jojo Rabbit; however, this is not a movie about the Holocaust. Its scope is limited to what’s happening inside the head and the heart — the fundamentally warped psychology that enabled Hitler’s lapdogs to create systemic oppression that eventually culminated in one of the worst events in human history. If that’s not dark enough of a backdrop Waititi reminds us that children were not immune to Hitler’s hateful rhetoric. Yet he also gives us hope by suggesting that a child, unlike a world-weary adult whose beliefs are more ingrained, is not entirely beyond saving.
When the impressionable Jojo is confronted with a unique circumstance he’s forced to reconcile what he has been indoctrinated to believe with objective, observable reality. His mother Rosie — wonderfully played by Scarlett Johansson — is part of a quiet anti-Nazi uprising and has hidden a teenaged Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. When he realizes he can’t spill the beans out of fear of being turned over to the SS — represented primarily by Stephen Merchant in a surprisingly scary capacity — he decides instead to use the intel he’s being fed by Elsa to create a pamphlet on how to identify “The Enemy.” After being dismissed from the Hitler Youth camp after a mishap with a grenade that left him slightly deformed, he will use this to impress his old pal Captain Klenzendorf — a weird role inhabited by Sam Rockwell, who plays the one-eyed Nazi as more bloke than baddie — as well as make himself feel as if he’s still involved in “the German cause.”
Naivety plays a big role in the movie. It’s the wrinkle that gives Jojo Rabbit‘s good-vs-evil trajectory more sophistication. The story is heartwarming and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, because you also look at Yorkie (Archie Yates), and wonder if his becoming a child soldier (albeit one who really has no business handling a rocket launcher) was really his fate. There are a lot of great performances in this time-worn tale of love ultimately triumphing over disproportionate evil. The real battleground in Waititi’s screenplay is not the inevitable blitz on the small town courtesy of the Allied Forces but rather the conversation between two youngsters on starkly opposite sides of a literal and metaphorical divide. The young actors are impressive with the way they trade barbs. It’s just unfortunate those heart-to-hearts come at the expense of McKenzie, who isn’t afforded anything approaching character growth and instead operates as a narrative device to make the could-be killer see the error of his ways.
Truth be told, Waititi loses a few battles along the way but ultimately wins the war. There are so many ways Jojo Rabbit could have gone wrong and probably would have gone wrong in the hands of a less capable and bold filmmaker. The big question surrounding his passion project (is this a passion project?) was whether he would be able to balance the disparate tones of drama and comedy in a story about Nazi Germany. I think he does that admirably.
Recommendation: If you ask the chuckleheads sitting next to me in the theater who, on top of entering the movie ten minutes late, laughed at everything Taika Waititi said so loudly no one else in the room needed to, he’s absolutely the reason the movie is kind of a must-see, even if the story it tells is less interesting than the performances. Waititi = lovable. Hitler = not so much.
Running Time: 108 mins.
Quoted: “Now this is my kind of little boy’s bedroom . . .”
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