Taika Waititi - director, writer, actor, and beloved rock monster - has been proving himself as one of the sharpest minds in modern comedy, between his work with the 'What We Do In The Shadows' film and TV series, along with his other film work ranging from small indies like 'Boy' to big budget spectacles in 'Thor Ragnarok.' I've loved all of his work for its sharp mixture of clever humor and dark subtext. But this seemed like a bit of a stretch even for a guy with this much talent.
What's that? You're going to try and make a comedy about a young boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler...in 2019? "Good luck Taika," was all that ran through my mind in the last few months of festival buzz. As happens with a lot of films that have come out in the last number of years (see my 'Joker' review) I've arguably thought way too much about the public discourse around the social matters of the film in contrast to the film itself. Was it insulting to try and portray that time period - Holocaust and all - as funny; to portray the people and leaders who instigated and supported those atrocities as "sympathetic" and something to not take seriously in the midst of said historical context.
As a Jewish critic (yes, I'm playing the Jew card in this), I've been of two mind sets going in. On the one hand, I believe that comedy is universal. There is a way to make anything funny, but more importantly, the smartest comedies are the ones that make us as audiences pause from the laughter to realize WHY we're laughing, and take something away from said humor to influence our own lives. A guy like Taika Waititi (who is half Jewish himself) has shown himself to find humor and absurdity in dark, tragic stories, so I had faith in that. Yet, there was also the part of me who is in touch with their Jewish history and couldn't help but think that maybe this is trying a step too far for laughs and could wind up being the exact opposite; that in trying to make us laugh at this story, we forget who exactly we're laughing at and the millions who have suffered under those real life events.
But alright...that's enough personal context going in; what exactly does 'Jojo Rabbit' result in? People...I'll tell you this much: this is not a film for everyone. I recognize that nothing I say in this review will get you into the theater to see this if you have made up your mind beforehand about what this movie is trying to say. All I can tell you is that I've seen 'Jojo Rabbit' twice now, and both times, I can't fathom how good this movie is. Taika Waititi has crafted a movie that - to my personal relief - isn't all Nazi jokes and Hitler slapstick. This is a touching, smart and, at times, highly emotional film, all with insanely smart comedic timing that comes together remarkably well in the end.
Jojo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a young boy living in Nazi Germany towards the end of World War II under the care of his mother, Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson). He dreams of serving his country, even having an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi) to advise him. While attending a Hitler Youth training camp, Jojo is injured and begins helping spread German propaganda around town under the supervision of his former officer, Captain Klenzendorf (played by Sam Rockwell). He comes home one day to noises in the ceiling and discovers a secret: his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (played by Thomasin McKenzie) in the bedroom of his sister Inge, who passed away a few years earlier.
Elsa threatens Jojo if he tells his mother he knows of her existence, but Jojo doesn't want to tell Captain Klenzendorf in fear that he and his mother will be killed as well. But the imaginary version of Hitler comes up with another idea: what better way for Jojo to gain his favor than by writing a book on the Jews for the Nazis to identify them easier. Thus, Jojo attempts to get Elsa to let her guard down to learn the secrets of the "Jewish race," all while slowly peeling back the layers of his own fervent nationalism.
I'm certain that many of you read that synopsis, saw my earlier paragraph and are thinking to yourself, "Am I being trolled?" Well, there's one big reason why all of this worked as well as it did for me: tone. Taika Waititi makes this film work through an almost impossible balance of humor and tragedy (and that's sayins something considering his filmography). At its core, this is a coming-of-age story, but it's also a story about blind nationalism, simple answers, and finding love in everyday life. As a protagonist, we're not supposed to identify with Jojo, we're supposed to hope (like his mother) that he will see that the world is not whatever the Nazis say it is, and believing in those notions will only lead to a life of horror and atrocity. There is a bit of a shift in the second half of the film, where it becomes more of a comedy-within-a-drama rather than the other way around, but the point I'm trying to get at is that the film never feels jarring straying from one avenue to another.
We can go from a heartbreaking story about Elsa's life before the war to a joke about Jojo's boss copyrighting a uniform with a record player as a weapon, and it all comes together. It's Taika aiming high for that notion I mentioned earlier, that comedy can be as thought-provoking as it is laugh out loud funny, and make no mistake, this film is incredibly funny (there is a circumcision joke and a piece of slapstick involving imaginary Hitler that had me rolling in my seat with laughter). Without that balance of tone, I truly believe this movie would fall apart at the seams.
That's not to discard the cast, who are all at the top of their game. The point of all this is young Roman Griffin Davis, who carries so much of the film through his naiveté sense of patriotism, but always with the underlying confusion of being (as Thomasin McKenzie's Elsa puts it) "a ten-year old kid, who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and likes being part of club." Speaking of McKenzie, she is also fantastic, and her interactions of getting across to Jojo bring out some of the most human moments of the film (side note: not enough of you saw 'Leave No Trace:' see 'Leave No Trace').
But even the adults are fantastic: Scarlett Johansson is welcoming as Jojo's mother who wants nothing more than for her son to respect and enjoy life, Sam Rockwell is at his most arrogant this side of 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Rebel Wilson is maybe the funniest she's ever been, and Stephen Merchant (as weird as it is to say) is legitimately terrifying as a Gestapo agent. They all come across with that aforementioned balance of wit and horror that Waititi's vision is trying to go for. Top that cast off with another unique score from composer Michael Giacchino, along with some deceptively interesting cinematography from Mihai Mălaimare Jr., and it's a package to behold.
So, with all that said, does this movie falter at all? Not a lot, but at least in a few places. For one thing, as much as I think Thomasin McKenzie is fantastic in this, I noticed that a lot of her Jewish identity seems to get conflated with Jojo's stereotypes, and I wish we had gotten a bit more sincere portrayal of her culture. We know that there's more she can show Jojo, and I get that the point is that she's trying to get him to realize the truth more than telling him flat out, but I just felt like there were storytelling opportunities that were passed over. There's also a few jokes throughout the movie (and a scene towards the end for that matter) that feel a bit counterintuitive (and a bit mean-spirited) to what the story has been building up towards. And as good as Waititi is as a ten-year-old's image of Adolf Hitler, there are a few "ranty" moments that couldn't help but get under my skin at times.
'Jojo Rabbit' isn't at all what I was expecting - it's far better. It's directing and writing are balanced perfectly to accompany a fantastically balanced cast, consistent laughs, and well-executed ideas and emotions. Look, I understand, this is not going to everyone's cup of tea, and as an idea alone, that sense of balancing tragedy with laughs seems iffy at best. But for me, this was something special - a reminder of life and levity in the midst of horrible surroundings told by a storyteller who, as far as I can tell, seems to always keep that in mind.
Overall, I give "Jojo Rabbit" 9/10
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