Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★

Stand up comedians, in the era of the Trump presidency, have stopped being funny. Not all of them, but a hefty portion. Understandably, these comedians feel the need to use their platform to spread a message to counteract the rampant messages of hate and intolerance. But somewhere along the way they have decided to give up on the central element of comedy, humor, in lieu of making a point. Before I begin to sound like I’m in the, the-world-is-so-PC-that-we-can’t-even-joke-anymore camp, I think the move is commendable. It’s just that so many brilliant comedians have forgotten to also write jokes.

Perhaps the answer to the times we live in isn’t mildly funny, mostly political comedy specials. The answer could be satire. The thing is satire is a lot harder to do than sucking the jokes out of standup. Luckily we have writer/director Taika Waititi to show us how it‘s done.

At its core satire must be funny or doesn’t stand a chance of working, and Jojo Rabbit definitely succeeds on that point. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a ten-year-old boy living in Nazi Germany during the second half of World War II. His version of an imaginary friend is the Führer, Adolf Hitler himself (played by Waititi), at least a goofball version of the vicious leader. Imaginary Adolf gives his young fan advice and boosts his confidence as Jojo heads to a Hitler Youth boy-scout-like camp to learn how he can serve in the war effort, not knowing how dire the German position in the war is becoming. There he meets his scene-stealing friend, Yorki (Archie Yates giving one of the most hilarious performances by a young actor I’ve ever seen). The cast is rounded out by a endearing Scarlett Johansson, heightened idiots if the Reich played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson, and a dangerously fun performance from another young actor, Thomasin McKenzie.

What the cast, under Waititi’s direction, is able to accomplish is something that makes you understand, and laugh at, the utter absurdity of Hitler’s ideology. Because we see how this worldview captures the imagination of a naive child, we see just how laughably vapid racism and xenophobia are.

But because the film is dealing with these heavy topics, we venture into the realm of satire, instead of straightforward comedy. But simply addressing these things isn’t an automatic path to success. There needs to be something to say or show about these things. And that’s what JoJo Rabbit also provides. While we laugh at German racism and xenophobia, we also feel the weight of it. It brings about terror, death, and danger for our young protagonist. The film is a journey through JoJo’s eyes, one where he discovers conflict, pain, and an immense sense of loss, giving the film an unexpected poignancy, all while never losing sight of, and more than delivering, the comedic elements of satire. Waititi so nails the fullness of what satire should be, and what political comedy can be, with this film.

The other part of satire that’s not apparent within the definition of the term is the inconsistent way people will react to it. Back to the unfunny stand up comedians. They are by and large preaching to the choir, eliciting the that’s-so-true head nods that stand up tends to garner. Satire is a much more daring form of political comedy, and therefore more divisive. Instead of bluntly saying, “Trump is bad, am I right?” and waiting for the audience to laugh, satire crafts a story within a place and time that is characterized by horror of some kind, then it asks us to laugh. There are times when you second guess if you should even be laughing, but that’s the complicated world of satire — a fine line that will leave and audience uncertain. So it’s not so shocking that some people love the Jojo Rabbit and others find it to be a tough watch. Sure the reactions may be more divisive than a sweet, tepidly comical stand up special, but the impact of good satire has a much greater potential to stand the test of time.