Film Review – Jojo Rabbit
Jojo Rabbit tries to ride a tightrope of humor and tragedy but wobbles way too much. Nazis and comedy can be a surprisingly strong combination, with classics like The Producers and more recent films like Inglourious Basterds making fun of the worst monsters of history that has a cathartic way of taking away the power these hateful people have in our minds. Here, though, the formula is changed by having the Nazi be a ten year old boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who is less a Nazi and more someone who has been surrounded by propaganda. Being ten, he can not only reject news that the war is going badly for the Germans, but also have an imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo’s world is thrown for a loop when he finds out his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).
The humor is one of the big parts selling the film and, while there are moments that genuinely made me laugh out loud, it was inconsistent, especially with Waititi’s Hitler. Hitler’s “role” is ill-defined in that he is played as very goofy by Waititi, yet we are also supposed to see him as the devil on Jojo’s shoulder. This dichotomy didn’t work well because we can never take him seriously and we spend large parts of the film never seeing him so why he is there is never clear. It is more that Waititi wants to make Hitler look like an idiot for the sake of making Hitler look like an idiot. A fine idea in theory but he is so ridiculous that he never seems like a “real” Hitler and so never works as a way to show the conflict within Jojo.
There are some better uses of humor that are much more subtle like Gestapo agent Deertz (Stephen Merchant) investigating for just a twenty minute scene, who is able to be threatening to Jojo and Elsa’s safety while delivering some great one liners. Or Jojo’s best friend in the Hitler youth Yorki (Archie Yates) used as a great prop for showing the ridiculous desperation for Germany as he is conscripted into the army despite being eleven and seemingly unaffected by everything terrible happening around him. These moments are used more sparingly and have something to say while a lot of the film seems to want to be serious but never can quite keep its tone straight.
The main conflict is supposed to be Jojo being challenged in his beliefs, especially by Elsa who does more than just talk to him, actually berating him and physically overpowering him to show that Jews are not “weak” in comparison to his “Aryan” blood. This was a bit of a change than just someone meeting their “enemy” and finding out they are the same as them. A big problem is that literally everyone around him is not a Nazi. His mother wants the war over and is vocal on not liking the Nazi leaders. The Hitler youth Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) is never actively promoting Nazi propaganda and actually does more to act like a father figure to Jojo and keep him feeling involved even when Jojo is injured and cannot do “military” activities. Klenzendorf is never portrayed as bad in anyway, but more as concerned with protecting the town rather than anything to do with Nazi beliefs. Nowhere is Jojo forced to question his beliefs because no one he cares about has Nazi beliefs, beyond his imaginary jokey Hitler. Elsa’s impact is further stymied in that he already has much more interaction with all the other non-Nazis he already knows.
The message and tone become even more of a problem when something serious does happen because the film doesn’t know how to handle actual tragedy with the tone it has created up until that point. It quickly moves on from it causing two big problems. First, all momentum for the rest of the film is gone as this should have been a major change to the characters yet the film goes on another twenty-two minutes! Second, we almost immediately go back to the more jokey atmosphere to make what should have been momentous seem unnecessary. The movie wanted a big emotional moment, got it, and then proceeded to give the ending we knew we were going to get.
While more blatant in its ending, I kept wondering what exactly is this film about? Director Taika Waititi can tell some good jokes but he can’t figure out tonally what he wants to do with this character and, more importantly, the situation around him. “Nazis are bad” is an easy concept to understand, and trying to see it from the viewpoint of a little boy who doesn’t understand the world around him could be used as a new and different way to look at evil in the world. Instead the director cannot figure out how to make it work and settles for a few good jokes and a predictable ending.