Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★½

"It's definitely not a good time to be a Nazi."

JOJO RABBIT is one of those comedies that walks a very tight line, where the pitch has to be just perfect; if it veers too much in the wrong direction, the whole thing might fall apart. Taika Waititi is a strong enough director to pull it off, and over the last few years this has slowly grown to becoming a film I love to quote.

We've now reached the point where we've seen so many movies about Nazis and WWII that it's difficult to play it straight, where it almost seems like there's no choice but to do a satirical take on the material like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS or this film.

Jojo is a 10-year-old German boy who is a member of the Nazi youth. He idolizes Hitler and speaks to him as his imaginary friend, and we follow him going to a training camp, which feels like MOONRISE KINGDOM meets the Nazi Party. Roman Griffin Davis is really strong as Jojo. It's always hard to get a good lead performance out of a child actor, and especially when they have to deliver humor around material as sensitive as this. His best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) is also a great comedic but genuine presence. This dialog sums up the dynamic of their friendship:

"Unless you’re Hitler hiding in a fat little boy’s body, I’d be happy with second place."
"I guess I'm just a kid in a fat kid’s body."

The supporting cast is great as well, including Scarlett Johansson as Jojo's dry-witted mother Rosie, Sam Rockwell as the one-eyed Capt. K, and Alfie Allen as his sidekick. In one of the funniest moments of unexpected slapstick, Jojo, full of vigor, goes running through the camp, snatches a live grenade from Cast. K's hand, and throws it hard against a tree, only for it to bounce back and explode in his face. Cast. K immediately turns back to his students and responds "Don't do that" as we abruptly cut to black. It's a joke straight out of the Marx brothers.

After this explosion, Jojo develops a scar and stays home. Soon he learns of a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), living in his attic. I like that Elsa isn't your typical Anne Frank archetype but actually stands up to him and the two form a friendly rivalry. He goes from calling her "little Jew girl who lives in the walls" to writing her fake notes from her boyfriend Nathan, until the two finally begin acting as a brother and sister.

I love how Yorki is the only genuine person in the film. Everyone else is either a Nazi or passing as one. Both Rosie and Capt. K are revealed to be good people who must put on a facade, their good deeds covered in deception. Yorki is the voice of reason who takes everything at face value, at one point telling Jojo bluntly that they have lost the war. "Our only friends are the Japanese, and just between you and me, they don't look very Aryan."

The entire tone of the film is very heightened. The characters use anachronistic slang like "What's up?" and "Correcto-mundo. " One scene, in which the Gestapo arrive at Jojo's house, the phrase "Heil Hitler" is said about 35 times until it enters absurdity. And of course, you have Watiti himself playing Imaginary Hitler, speaking in a Kiwi accent. Another clever touch is the use of a German cover of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" over the opening credits, homaging A HARD DAY'S NIGHT and paralleling Nazi fanaticism with Beatlemania.

But for all the humor, there are also just many touches of bold filmmaking. Rosie is shown tying Jojo's shoes in many scenes, or often framed with only her shoes in the shot, so much so that we get a sense of her presence just from seeing her shoes. All of this leads to the reveal of Rosie's death in a heartbreaking shot that tells us everything we need to know visually, just by showing those same shoes.

And I also love the very last scene. Jojo and Elsa step into the outside world, process that the war is over and that she is free. He asks "What do we do now?" and slowly, the two begin to awkwardly and nonchalantly sway to a melody that casually transforms into a German cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." As they make more anachronistic dance moves, the music swells. It's a perfect summation of being free, being children, beginning life anew.

This is one of those comedies that leaves you with a lot to process, where what exactly you're laughing at may vary. Some parts work better than others. In particular, I feel Imaginary Hitler (Taika Watiti) was a device that should only have been used in the first third and doesn’t work as strongly once the film starts becoming more serious.  After he dives headfirst out the window, he should never have appeared again.

Still, this is a movie with a lot to say about childhood, guns, anti-Semitism, propaganda, what happened back then, and what's still happening today. It captures the mind of a 10-year-old, and the result is very funny. But just what scenes make you laugh will vary from person to person.

Part of Gabe's Second-Tier Favorite Films

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