Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★

Here's the reason most Nazi comedies don't work:

Nazis might be absurd, but their virulent racism and violence are anything but.

As such, it's REALLY hard to pivot from Anchorman-esque lampooning of the Aryan Race to direct references of their atrocities. At best, you seem manipulative. At worst, insensitive. Just ask Roberto Benigni and Jerry Lewis some time. Benigni's Life Is Beautiful took a Chaplin farce and deposited it into the concentration camps, and as for Lewis' The Day the Clown Cried, well, unless you're Harry Shearer, good luck ever seeing that fucking film. Even Lewis knew when he'd gone too far.

So the most frustrating thing about Jojo Rabbit is how close it gets. Yes, writer/director Taika Waititi sets his film in Germany during the waning days of World War II, but it's really set in Taikaland: if you've seen Thor: Ragnarok or his great Hunt for the Wilderpeople, you know that's a place just south of normal and just to the left of serious. It's casual absurdism, and it fits a community filled with Nazis but mostly free of their crimes. The ranking captain (Sam Rockwell, doing his Sam Rockwell thing) is a closeted layabout who adopts an air of cynical, deliberate incompetence to everything he does. His secretary (Rebel Wilson) dresses like the Ricola girl and cares for a harras of blonde-haired, cherub-cheeked Nazi clones. The head of the Gestapo is Steven Merchant, for God's sake.

And our hero, ten-year-old Jojo Betzler (the winning Roman Griffin Davis) loves palling around with his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi, going so broad he's practically an oval).

The film's sense of farce is so heightened that Waititi seems like he's going to succeed where Lewis and Benigni and Chaplin have not. We can laugh at these morons because we don't have to reconcile the horrors of their actions with the onscreen mirth. I was reminded of that great Monty Python sketch where two old women host their newest boarder, Adolf Hilter, and are blissfully ignorant of his real identity even as he can barely make it through tea without sneering and hailing at people.

Furthermore, just when Waititi seems like he's going to fall prey to mawkish sentiment, his facility for genuine human kindness kicks in. The whole second act of Jojo Rabbit is, essentially, the comedy Anne Frank, as Jojo discovers the Jewish girl (a great Thomasin McKenzie) his mother (Scarlett Johansson, who is as good here as she was terrible in Endgame) has been hiding in the walls of their house. Here's where the movie should succumb to its worst impulses, except Waititi loves outsiders and makeshift families, and the scenes between Davis and McKenzie are some of the best in the film. She's all kinetic energy - equal parts terrifying and sympathetic - and Davis does yeoman's work at letting his Führer-brand distaste for Jews slowly melt into genuine affection and love. Waititi is able to raise the stakes, particularly during a hair-raising visit from the Gestapo, without losing his sense of irony and wit.

And then the film turns into fucking Life Is Beautiful.

It is not subtle. Major characters start dying in horrible ways, and the tone slides into something more funereal. Minus the periodic interludes from Jojo's optimistically deluded "second-best" friend Yorki (newcomer Archie Yates), Waititi intends for us to take seriously all this malaise. All of a sudden, the film's sense of humor feels like a shallow calculation that sits uneasily next to the hangings and shootings and heroic sacrifices that mar the third act. It's the same damn problem: we can't laugh at genocide. It doesn't help that Waititi clearly doesn't know how to handle the imaginary Hitler conceit past a certain point (you could rewrite the character out of the film with little impact on the narrative), or that he has the gall to try and transition back to absurdism after the ending's genuine pathos. Waititi is smart to put so much of the finale on David Bowie's thrilling "Helden" ("Heroes" in German) because if anyone can convince viewers that all this manipulation is worthwhile, it's David Bowie.

I just felt sick. Jojo Rabbit might be well made and engaging, but it's also fundamentally irresponsible. This star rating will drop.