You won’t find me among those critics arguing that Taika Waititi’s outrageous new black comedy Jojo Rabbit is “tone-deaf” because Nazism is “not funny,” especially at a time when white supremacy is on the rise and doing real harm to real people in the US. True, it’s not 100 percent original in its slapstick depiction of Hitler and his minions; Charlie Chaplin got there first, followed by The Producers and Hogan’s Heroes and quite a few more. And it does skim lightly over the enormity of human suffering at the hands of the Third Reich and its enablers. But grappling with such tragedy head-on is the work of a different genre of filmmaking. Jojo Rabbit revels in heaping scorn on the perpetrators, here depicted as absurd as a typical day’s tweetstorm from the Twit-in-Chief, and I’m totally here for it. I haven’t laughed this loudly at a movie in a long time.
That said, Jojo Rabbit isn’t going to be every viewer’s cup of tea. The buffoonery kicks in immediately, with a bouncy montage of archival photography of happy Hitler Youth set to the Beatles’ “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand.” We are introduced to Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a lonely, runty 10-year-old German boy whose older sister has recently died of influenza, whose father is missing on the Italian front and who dreams of himself as a badass Aryan warrior slaying horned, demonic Jews. He has totally internalized the Nazi messaging and looks forward eagerly to further indoctrination at youth camp. We also meet Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf, played with unrestrained goofiness by the director himself. Self-esteem-boosting pep talks, fascist rhetoric and utterly anachronistic American slang tumble in giddy disarray from his mouth, hyping Jojo up to meet the demands of each day.
At camp, run by the perhaps-insufficiently-motivated Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Jojo’s ambitions to prove himself run hard up against his innate good nature. Challenged to snap the neck of a bunny, he can’t bring himself to do it and flees, earning the taunting nickname of the title. Adolf urges Jojo to channel the rabbit’s survival instincts and do something risky to demonstrate machismo and devotion to the cause, resulting in a grenade mishap, injury and scarring.
As Jojo recuperates at home, the audience gets to know his tender, supportive mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who goes through the motions of saying “Heil Hitler” when necessary but consistently cultivates other, more life-affirming values in her son. What starts out seeming like only a highly abstracted subversive attitude on Rosie’s part takes on staggering new implications when Jojo discovers a Jewish girl secreted in a crawlspace behind a hidden panel in his dead sister’s room – one of her former schoolmates, in fact, named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). How is he going to explain this to his buddy/life coach Adolf without getting his beloved mother in deep trouble?
While it never entirely loses its rosy confectionary look and feel of being inspired by Wes Anderson’s movies – in an otherwise-negative review, Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman astutely dubbed it “Moonreich Kingdom,” and Jojo’s best friend Yorki (Archie Yates), with his round face and spectacles, embodies the kid version of Bob Balaban’s narrator character in the Anderson film involving a youth camp – it’s at this point that Jojo Rabbit takes a tonal shift. The slapstick doesn’t go away, but a thread of poignancy begins to creep in as his conversations with this mysterious girl in the attic force Jojo to question everything he has been taught – about Jewish monstrosity, about German superiority, about the nobility of the war effort.
McKenzie, noted for her exquisite portrayal of a girl living off the grid with her PTSD-afflicted father in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018), does an equally fine job here. Thankfully, Waititi’s clever screenplay – based on Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies – eschews the usual stereotype of mid-century European Jews as wan, passive intellectuals and endows Elsa with physical toughness and attitude aplenty. It’s no wonder that Jojo falls under her spell, even after he gives up his loony belief that Jews practice mind control.
As the war winds down, the fascist fantasy unravels and the picturesque German town is reduced to rubble, but one deluded 10-year-old boy learns empathy and critical thinking, and finds a far better friend than that lunkhead with the little moustache and the brown uniform. The center of nearly every scene, young Roman Griffin Davis has the acting chops to make us care about how Jojo’s going to turn out, even when he’s regurgitating idiotic propaganda. (Dare we hope for comparable redemption for some of our favorite unwoke contemporary Americans, once the haze of battle clears?) Jojo Rabbit is essentially a Bildungsroman, not a World War II movie, and you might find a sentimental tear or two nudging aside your guffaws by the very end.