Jojo RabbitReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/23/19 11:41:32
If I were to make a list of cinematic subgeneres that I could easily go the vast majority of my life without ever again seeing unfolding on the big screen, the weirdly persistent one that fuses together the whimsical innocence of childhood with the horrors of World War II would probably land somewhere near the top of it. Oh sure, there have been a couple of examples of this particular brand of filmmaking that I have admired—John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” (especially its astounding first hour or so) immediately spring to mind—but those hardly begin to make up for such utter grotesqueries as “The Tin Drum,” “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and, of course, the more-appalling-than-ever “Life is Beautiful,” films that take the most horrific event of the 20th century and attempt to milk it for cheap sentiment and, hopefully, Oscar nominations from people who mistakenly assume that just because a movie involves a serious subject like the Holocaust, it must be serious as well and therefore worthy of consideration. The latest big screen attempt to tell a story along these lines, Taiki Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” tries to shake the formula up a bit by adding comedy to the mix, presumably so that viewers can bravely laugh through their tears as they embrace what has been boldly described as being “an anti-hate satire.” The results, needless to say, are pretty appalling as unfunny comedy rubs shoulders with unearned sentiment with results that desperately want to be considered outrageous but which end up coming across as far too empty-headed for any sensible person to deem as actually offensive.As the film opens, it is the end days of WWII and the depleted German army is now reduced to training young children to fight for their country as soldiers. While a number of people have grown increasingly wary of Germany’s chances of triumph, one who is still a full-throttle believer in the cause is Jojo Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy who lives with his doting mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and memories of his long-vanished father and dead sister. How dedicated is Jojo to the cause? His imaginary best friend is none other than the one and only Adolf Hitler (Waititi), always offering him cigarettes while urging him on to be the best darn Nazi imaginable. Unfortunately, while off on a Hitler Youth weekend retreat run by the barely sober Captain Klenzerdorf (Sam Rockwell), it quickly becomes apparent that his surface zeal is not backed up by much of anything. When he refuses an order from his loutish counsellors to kill a bunny rabbit with his bare hands, he is give the derisive nickname “Jojo Rabbit.” When Adolf tries to cheer him up by suggesting that he take charge and “be the rabbit,” his newfound enthusiasm results in a accident with a hand grenade that injures his legs, scars his face and gets him sent home for the immediate future, much to Rosie’s evident relief.
With nothing else to do, Jojo fills times putting up pro-Hitler posters and distributing conscription letters while Rosie is away from home for long hours every day. One day, Jojo comes home early and hears some noises coming from upstairs. Upon investigating, he discovers that his mom has been hiding Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenaged Jewish girl, in the walls upstairs in order to protect her from the madness outside. At a loss as to what to do with his discovery—if he reports her, it will almost certainly be bad news for his mother as well as Elsa— he takes Adolf’s advice and starts questioning her about the secrets of Jews (covering just about every diseased stereotype and slander imaginable) in the name of research. At first, Jojo and Elsa maintain a mutual sense of antagonism but as time goes by, wouldn’t you know it, a peculiar friendship develops as Jojo, despite being as committed to the cause as can be, slowly begins to suspect that maybe—just maybe—Jewish people are just like everyone else. And if the stories he has been told about them are turning out to be untrue, what is he to make about everything else that he has been told about the unquestioned superiority of the Aryan way of life and how Germany will easily win the war, even with reports suggesting that the arrival of American and Russian troops is imminent.
Although some of my colleagues have proclaimed Taika Waititi to be one of the brightest names in the annals of current comedy filmmakers, my reaction to the guy’s output to date has been a little more measured. On the one hand, his vampire spoof “What We Do In the Shadows” was one of the funniest horror-comedy hybrids of recent years and the cheerfully goofball “Thor: Ragnarok” is one of the very few Marvel movies to date that a non-fanboy could actually bear to watch a second time. On the other hand, his kid-ont-the-run spectacle “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” was a little too mawkish for my taste and “Eagle vs. Shark” was a “Napoleon Dynamite” wannabe that came perilously close to being even more obnoxious and irritating than its inspiration. While I give Waititi credit for using the considerable clout that he accumulated through the massive success of “Thor: Ragnarok” to get something as defiantly oddball as “Jojo Rabbit” off the ground instead of simply grabbing for the next big blockbuster payday, it doesn’t take long to realize that it is the cloying and crashingly unfunny version of him who has turned up this time around.
I hasten to point out that it is not the basic premise of the movie or the decision to portray all the Nazis as nincompoops that I object to. Movies like “The Great Dictator” and “To Be or Not to Be” have taken similar approaches and gone on to become revered comedy classics that still manage to pack a considerable comedic punch today. Of course, with those films, filmmakers Charles Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch clearly had strong and clear ideas of exactly what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say them. Here, Waititi, adapting Christine Leunen’s 2008 novel “Caging Skies,” never seems to have any clear notion of what point he is trying to convey—except for the not-exactly-radical notion that hate is bad—and no coherent idea of how to present it in comedic terms. To put it mildly, if you are going to make a film touching on this kind of subject matter, you have to find just the right tone or the whole thing is just going to come off as weird and unfunny and Waititi never finds that tone. Simply portraying all the Nazis as buffoons—blandly offering up multiple “Heil Hitlers” or repeating insane “facts” about Jewish people—just feels like the easy way out that avoids the question of what would cause anyone, be they an impressionable child or a adult, to accept such a mindset in the first place—especially frustrating considering how this story could have been used to serve as a commentary on current-day events and leaders.
This stuff is bad enough on its own but it jibes horribly with the scenes in which Waititi tries to occasionally make a turn for the serious in a series of equally ill-advised moments in which cheap sentimentality is used as a substitute for genuine feeling. Put it this way—once you have seen a number of dead Jewish people hanging from nooses, it is a little difficult to shift back to them acting like goofs. Again, I suppose it is possible to make these shifts in tone work but it requires certain delicacy of touch that Waititi does not seem to have in his possession here, either behind the camera or in front of it (where his Hitler proves to be so utterly innocuous that it could have been removed from the proceedings entirely without affecting the narrative too greatly). Oddly enough, some of the actors show enough deftness here to suggest that they might have been able to pull off such tricky material if it had been in other hands—Davis and Mckenzie are good enough in their scenes together to make you almost forget how gauche they really are and Johansson, as Jojo’s mom, is even better than that. On the other hand, the wacky Nazis are played so broadly that they would be rejected from a “Hogan’s Heroes” rerun for going too far overboard. That said, I suppose that there is a certain amusement in the notion of seeing Sam Rockwell going from being Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing racists who eventually begin to learn the folly of their ways to playing a Nazi who—Spoiler Alert!—eventually begins to learn the folly of his ways.To be fair, “Jojo Rabbit” does contain what may be the single funniest joke that I have seen in a movie this year—one that I will not spoil despite my general loathing of the film as a whole on the chance that you decide not to heed my warning and see it anyway. Unfortunately, the remaining 107-odd minutes are a cloying chore that starts off by asking the question “What would “The Diary of Anne Frank” be like in the hands of someone trying to be Wes Anderson?” and ends with a end credits song cue that is so painfully and obviously on-the-nose that it might have come across as being bitterly ironic if the proceeding feature had demonstrated even the slightest degree of self-awareness. Frankly, the only thing about it that even comes close to reaching the dictionary definition of the word “shocking” is how crummy the whole thing really is.
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