Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★


Yeah, I'm not seeing anything controversial here. If anything, it seemed like Waititi was playing it a bit too risk-averse in the first hour. We get there, though. We definitely get there. The thing I had to keep reminding myself was that the entire film is viewed through the eyes of a child. Literally every problem I had about certain elements being Disney-esque were better understood through this obvious lens.

Jojo Rabbit is about the way military propaganda, no matter how silly, stupid, absurd, etc, plays as straight facts to an average, gullible child. No matter how ridiculous Jews are portrayed (i.e. literal vampires), it's more than believable to Jojo, and it makes for an easy way to align him against a sect of people and begin indoctrination. Funny enough, you could do one of these in America today and the protagonist doesn't have to be a child. You can find millions of adults who believe every single bullshit headline they read on facebook--emphasis on headline, because we know no one reads the "articles." I digress. Jojo Rabbit is about how hate-promoting and absurd all propaganda is, how people react after consuming it, and how simply wanting to "be a part pf the group" can turn ordinary people into hate-filled monsters (which, if you want to read the serious, scary, historical version, check out the book Ordinary Men.)

The film isn't as serious and morbid as that description, obviously. Taika Waititi directed it of course, and if you've seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople or What We Do in the Shadows (you should), you'll know the exact style of humor to expect. Almost overly twee and cute, Waititi is basically the more accessible, energetic version of Wes Anderson, and he's no different here in Jojo Rabbit.

The film almost writes itself from the premise--it's got simple and obvious human-connection-overcomes-hate themes--but Waititi's wholesome, whimsical humor is entertaining and makes this serious subject matter not only palatable, but often heartwarming.

Thomasin McKenzie absolutely steals the show. I've seen a lot of deserved love tossed around for Roman Griffin Davis, ScarJo, and Sammy R, who are all good-to-great (as usual for the latter two), but McKenzie's performance is what will stick with me. She was good in Leave No Trace, but here' it's obvious she's going to be a star. She's sarcastic, witty, charming, and so much of the emotional core of the film runs through her relationship with Jojo, and they've got the best scenes of the movie. I couldn't get enough of those two interacting.

My favorite scene, and the best encapsulation of the main theme, is the first time Jojo reads Nathan's "letters" to Elsa. At this point, he's still on board the "she's a vampire" train, and is solely looking to harm her emotionally (since hurting her physically has proven futile). The first letter visibly hurts Elsa, and both we, the audience, and Jojo quickly realize that it's the first time he's ever truly hurt someone, and he immediately feels how shitty it is. All the propaganda in the world, all the hateful indoctrination, can't stand up to the actual feeling that hurting someone sucks, and his first reaction is to change that. It's the first time he sees her and treats her like a person, and the springboard for how their relationship develops. That's the heart of the entire film in a 30-second moment, and it's beautiful. Their entire relationship works at eliciting a similar feeling to good effect, but this scene nailed it.

I will say Waititi's Hitler wasn't nearly as entertaining as he usually is in his comedy roles, nor is he as compelling as the other characters. During the Hitler scenes, I spent most of the time wishing McKenzie would come back for more scenes, which isn't just a testament of how disinterested I was in the imaginary friend, but also to how great the chemistry was between Jojo and Elsa.

In recent years, the film that I think's done the best at the whole portraying-a-genocidal-maniac-as-a-goofy-doofus tactic is The Death of Stalin, which portrays these type of people in the silliest, most comedic manner possible, but never loses sight of how dangerous and awful they actually were. Throughout the laughs, you're never disconnected with how murderous and inhumane they were. It's the smoothest I've ever seen such a tonal tightrope played, and is therefore more daring and interesting a film for it (Side note--I would have loved it if they similarly got rid of everyone's accents for this; not a fan of the forced German accents). Jojo Rabbit's similar tonal shift mostly happens in the mind of Jojo, and notably away from the imaginary moments with Hitler. The shift works for the film as a whole, mind you, but does leave Waititi's caricature of Hitler as hollow and easy, detached from the real horror of the man. Almost like a stand-up comedian today making fun of Trump--you're not wrong, just lazy. You're just playing a video game on the easiest mode and telling everyone how good you are at it.

Again, in the grand scheme of things a thematically weak Hitler isn't the biggest deal, as the film still works on bigger levels-- it has humane, believable emotional relationship between its main characters, has a simple but wholesome view on building connections through kindness (of which is a staple in all of Waititi's work), and has actors that are absolutely killing it in their roles. Jojo Rabbit is a fun, bittersweet film about a bad time. Not as complex, nor as controversial as you might have heard, but as a simple 'anti-hate satire' it more than gets the job done.

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