Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★½

"Tell me everything about the Jewish people."
"Well, we're like you, but human."

An admirable misfire from Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit -- the "anti-hate satire," a genre which its trailer needed to literally spell out on screen -- is moderately funny, vivid and colorful, and features another excellent performance from up-and-coming Thomasin McKenzie. Unfortunately, it's also a complete atonal mess, woefully unsubtle, and devoid of the least bit of intelligence or nuance.

Nevertheless, I'm sure the Academy will be calling in a few months.

Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a devout Nazi during the last year of World War II in Germany. He's also a ten-year-old boy who simply follows the lead of his scoutleaders, and notably his imaginary friend, literally Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). He lives with his sweet mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), as his sister died of the flu and his father is off fighting in Italy for the fatherland. When attending his Hitler Youth camp, run by Captain Klensendorf (Sam Rockwell), though he thinks himself a tough devotee he is instead taunted after refusing to kill a rabbit, earning the titular nickname. Naturally, he tries to show his worth by throwing a grenade which blows up right next to him. Mending his wounds, he discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl in their home, whose name he comes to know is Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Though his imaginary friend insists she is despicable, Jojo comes to have complicated feelings, and must come to terms with his nation's fervent hate for a people when his own mother is protecting one.

Again, this is admirable. I love laughing at Nazis as much as the next guy, and Waititi surely wishes for people to enjoy ridiculing such abhorrent and reprehensible ideologies. Yep. No shame in that.

But my oh my, this just hits so many wrong notes. First, on a surface level, no one except McKenzie has any idea what accent they're supposed to have. Sometimes it's from Germany, sometimes it's from England/New Zealand, sometimes it's just all over the place. Maybe that was on purpose as another gag, but it didn't work for me. Their mannerisms are wildly anachronistic; again, possibly not by accident but it helps contribute to a tone that is absent, or at best completely incongruent. I'm not sure what if any of that tone is from Caging Skies, Christine Leunens' work from which Waititi adapted his screenplay.

Also, they stole that "achoo/a Jew" joke from Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Speaking of Mel Brooks (give it a minute), it brings me to another gripe I have of Jojo Rabbit, and Waititi's and even Rockwell's performances. We really need to stop equating "silly German Nazis" with a "gay" demeanor. Oh, c'mon, you know exactly what I mean. If you've seen the film, you know; if you've seen the trailer, it's there too. It isn't the first movie to use a homophobic dig for comedy, with the lisps and hand gestures and general girly-but-you-know-what-we-really-are-saying trope. Stop that. It's as if Waititi saw Roger de Bris singing "Springtime for Hitler" and thought, "Aha! So they're all like that!" No, you schmuck.

Despite my criticisms, I will again vouch for some of the humour, though some is as subtle as a kick to Hitler's balls. (Whoops, spoiler.) And I enjoyed the cinematography a lot, in fact, as Mihai Mălamaire Jr. is a real sensation -- you may not have known he was the acclaimed cinematographer for P.T. Anderson's The Master as well. And lastly, Thomasin McKenzie is just an absolute gem; maybe not quite as tremendous as in her star-making turn in last year's Leave No Trace, but easily the best part of this film. She just acts circles around everyone, especially the writer/director/star himself.

A wildly mixed bag. Can't say I didn't laugh at times. Can't say I didn't appreciate the warmth and feel-good nature. Still, "let's laugh at Nazis!" is not good enough for 2019. This is not going to change any minds. This is not going to make right-wing bigots suddenly love their neighbour. This is not going to defeat racism and hate. Taika Waititi coming dangerously close to saying that "some Nazis were nice tho!" when actual white nationalists are in the White House… nah bro, we need to do better.

Added to 2020 Academy Awards nominees, ranked.
Added to Taika Waititi ranked.
Part of I Don’t Like These Movies and Neither Should You (a.k.a. “My Hot Takes List”)
Added to When Good Directors Make Bad Movies.

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