Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★

My opinion on provocative and controversial humour mimics somewhat my opinion on hunting: if you really must kill an animal to survive, make sure you are a good shot and put it down as humanely as possible. If all you can do is wound it and cause it a world of suffering, then maybe you should go back to target practice. Consequently, I don’t find anything inherently wrong with politically-charged humour pertaining to religion, race, gender and some delicate aspects of history like slavery and The Holocaust, but the same rule applies: if you want to make light of slavery or The Holocaust (and examples of it being done successfully either in cinema or in stand-up comedy are known), you’d better be damn funny, because the alternative doesn’t involve making an unfunny comedy, but rather a wholly disrespectful and tasteless experience. Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s farcical tale about a young German boy who has Adolf Hitler for an imaginary friend and whose mother turns out to be hiding a Jewish girl in their house, comes dangerously close to crossing the line.

A successful social satire does not have to explicitly be gunning for laughs to be successful and Armando Iannucci’s works, e.g.The Death Of Stalin and In The Loop are a great testament to this assertion. And the idea alone of handling a subject matter as delicate as The Holocaust and Nazism as an ideology in a provocative manner to reflect somewhat on our own times – especially when political views have polarized radically and the discourse has devolved into militant and tribalistic trench warfare – isn't exactly flawed; if anything, it is commendable and encouraged. But it’s a highly risky endeavour.

To be completely honest, some of the humour Jojo Rabbit is simply teeming with actually works. Examples would include the opening credit sequence with The Beatles singing in German juxtaposed with archival footage of Hitler’s rousing speeches, the throwaway German Shepherd joke, the recurring ‘Heil Hitler’ routine during a scene where Gestapo (for some reason pronounced ge-shta-poh) visits Jojo’s house, which seems directly lifted from Spies Like Us, or the subtly reappearing concept of Hitler having unicorn for dinner; it just goes to show that Waititi can derive comedy successfully out of this delicate narrative predicament. But at the same time, he over-indulges in giving all characters – including child characters – his own voice, which didn’t seem accidental at all. He wanted Jojo and everybody else to have his snappy comic timing and a deadpan delivery, which is something I found difficult to acclimate to initially.

On the other hand, what bothers me about this film on a fundamental level is that its aspirations are almost completely at odds with the tools Waititi uses. It is clear to me he wanted Jojo Rabbit to draw heavily from Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, at least in the basic idea of using comic vocabulary to tell an ultimately tragic tale. This is especially visible during several key scenes involving Scarlett Johansson (subtly foreshadowed on multiple occasions with suggestive framing of shots) and Sam Rockwell’s character, both of which serve as a doublet of dramatic climaxes for the entire narrative. However, although this aspiration is worth pursuing, I don’t think Waititi knew how to pull it off. I don’t think Benigni was ever interested in making the audience laugh as much as he aimed at making the character of his son laugh instead. This is a crucial difference because it results in the comedy bolstering the dramatic beats, whereas Waititi was aiming his comic efforts at me and ended up undercutting the drama instead. Thankfully, when it actually mattered, i.e. during the aforementioned climactic scenes and one involving Thomasin McKenzie’s character speaking to Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant, Waititi was able to control his urge to disarm the dramatic tension with crass jokes for long enough to compel the audience. But he nonetheless failed to curtail these tendencies on a variety of different occasions.

As a result, Jojo Rabbit comes across as tonally bipolar as it sways chaotically between its occasional moments of thematic profundity, crass humour and a wholly idiosyncratic aesthetic inspired by Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style. Although it has its moments where it can grab the viewer by the heart, I can’t call this film an out-and-out success. It seems to me that either Waititi’s comic sensibilities are incompatible with the subject matter or that he may be after all a one-trick pony who deconstructs everything he touches the same way. And one Wes Anderson is more than enough, thank you very much.

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