Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★½

Johannes Betzler is like every other ten-year-old boy. Except most little boys have a favorite sports team or band or video game that they are into and Johannes, well, he's really into the Nazis. The Nazi propaganda machine has worked on him. His room is covered in propaganda posters. He attends Nazi Youth camp. And, perhaps most importantly, his imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler (played by Taika Waititi, of all people).

Unfortunately, when he cannot kill a rabbit and then overcompensates by grabbing a grenade and dropping it way too close to himself to show how awesome he is, Johannes (who has been nicknamed "Jojo Rabbit" following the rabbit incident) is sent home with a gimpy leg and a scarred face. He then begins to suspect that his mother might be actively working against the Nazis. Also, there's a young Jewish girl hiding in his attic.

How will a young zealot such as Jojo respond to these developments? Will they change his rabid Nazism? Will he come to his senses? Those are the main questions that Taika Waititi's "Jojo Rabbit" explores.

I wasn't bowled over by this film...for a while anyway. I thought the first half was too cartoonish and strained a bit too hard to be zany and quirky. It's rather overbearing, to be honest. Waititi has always developed quirky, off kilter environments in his films but this time his efforts were less successful, in my opinion. I mean, it is inherently funny to watch Waititi play an imaginary, cartoonish version of Hitler. I cannot deny that. But this stuff isn't nearly as sharp or incisive as it feels like the movie thinks it is.

Fortunately, "Jojo Rabbit" settled down in the second half and that is where I think it really shines. Waititi finally seems to find the right balance of quirky and dark and integrates some pathos and sensitivity that I really appreciated. Waititi makes the Nazis such blatant morons here that I felt like there was no suspense, but then Waititi proves me wrong with a shocking development that I did not expect, and everything that happens after this development is more potent and profound. Waititi even manages to generate some sympathy toward the Nazis near the end. I mean, these people are definitely morons but when I saw the Allies mowing them down I couldn't help but feel some measure of sympathy toward them. Most of them aren't probably bad people, not deep down (Sam Rockwell plays one of the most sympathetic of the bunch...of all the racists he has recently played, and it's a fucking lot, this is the one I probably liked the most) and they've clearly been misled by a terrible person and brainwashed into doing terrible things.

This theme is the one that, unsurprisingly, resonates the most deeply in a time when I go on Facebook and see people I have known and been friends with for decades in some cases becoming the most terrible versions of themselves because they have allied themselves with the orange asshole in the White House. Sometimes it's hard to remember that these are (or at least seemed to me, for a very long time to be) good people who have been blinded by someone who amplifies their worst instincts and impulses.

Waititi dares us to understand and empathize with the Nazis and see how they could have done what they've done and that is the most shocking and surprising thing about "Jojo Rabbit". When it goes for easy laughs it's okay, but when it digs beneath the surface of the situations and exposes the humanity beneath, it is pretty remarkable.

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