Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★½

Is it me, or do wilderpeople sound like something that Hitler would hunt? Taika Waititi brings us that film's spiritual successor with a boy and his imaginary friend, but contrary to what the title suggests, that imaginary friend sure ain't Harvey. It's the latter days of WWII, but 10-year-old Jojo Betzler remains as dedicated as ever to excelling in his studies at a weekend Hitler Youth camp. Toiling under bullies, the death of his sister and the disappearance of his father have naturally bred a passion for National Socialism, but he must be a lot more ignorant of the Third Reich than his modern-day counterparts if he's imagining Hitler as Māori-Jew (in whiteface, but you see Waititi's joke, no?). Jojo's fun-loving manifestation of Hitler seems to be his only pal, until he finds an unexpected connection with a Jewish girl his mother is hiding in the attic. Thomasin McKenzie is pretty much reprising her role from "Leave No Trace", with a disillusioning backstory that may yet drive Jojo to the empathy that his camp officials and beloved Führer denounce. Leave it to Waititi to make a coming-of-age this weird this heartwarming, though he is pushing things for more than just his fellow Jews.

The few who can recall a time when the "Thor" franchise could have serious moments will recognize Taika Waititi's new knack for total irreverence with sensitive concepts... not that "Thor" is as sensitive a subject as Nazi Germany. I casually evoke Waititi's last movie to tell you that this isn't just dodgily-accented English dialogue and bouncy production values, the soundtrack rocking a bit of power pop, while the characters exchange slang, phrasing and humor that are even more anachronistic. This self-awaredly makes such silly buffoons out of certain characters and sassy cynics out of other, whilst making such plucky gags out of Nazi culture, as to gleefully exaggerate a horrific tragedy that, to be frank, was ludicrous enough to be its own black farce. To be frankfurter-I mean frank further, Waititi's farce is not even black, but endlessly bright and quirky in frenetic pacing, experimental framing and whimsical production values behind all of this unsubtle silliness. And then there's another signature for the filmmaker: ponderous, unexpectedly gutsy dramatic breakdowns that evolve the characters in profound ways, and that seem to bust from out of nowhere. This ambition beyond any concern for tonal unevenness rounded out one of the most entertaining and beautifully realized movies of 2016, but this is so much more ambitious in theme, and so much stranger in premise, that it rounds out a divisive farce. If you can hang through, though, it too is entertaining and beautifully realized for what it is.

Draped in brightly colored and dreamily arranged production values, and lusciously lensed by Mihai Mălaimare Jr., this takes glossy period production values to an extreme of whimsical world-building. Taika Waititi compliments this with Michael Giacchino's lovely score and relentlessly seamless pacing and framing, for the sake of the most full-hearted coming-of-age. To be sure, this giddy surrealism is cast against the Third fucking Reich, that it may also play up the insanity of a world corrupted by narcissism, hatred and regression as if it were a manic fantasy, in some ironic testament to how that can somehow become a way of life. It's a twisted tale on the banality of evil to remind us that it can (and may) sneak up on us, though if you're not comfortable laughing at those nutty Nazis, there are plenty of kicks with the weird personalities and snappy patter of memorable supporting roles and performances. Waititi himself stands out with a hysterically bombastic and sharp-witted take on a friendly Führer fantasy, while Scarlett Johansson and Thomasin McKenzie bring more grounded charisma and poignancy to the drama, but young Roman Griffin Davis owns the strangely complex lead. Davis' convicted comedic chops, initially meek vulnerability, and devastated crawl to a disillusioned manhood gracefully walk in line with a genuinely rich coming-of-age drama that is paved with layered character developments and interactions, and culminated in uncompromising tragedy and triumph. This isn't as realized in tonal extremes and minglings as something like "Hunt for the Wilderpeople", but it remains a uniquely hilarious and haunting highlight for an upcoming auteur.

Gleefully irreverent in casual anachronism, eccentric overstylization and silly humor that either cheapen or force lofty satire, as it all undermines a promising coming-of-age melodrama, Taika Waititi oversteps quirks when he isn't making thrilling enough use of them in whimsically dynamic direction, riotous and sobering satire and character development, and richly drawn acting and dramatic turns to make "Jojo Rabbit" a disarmingly entertaining and movingly frank twist on Germany's darkest days.

3.5/5 - Good