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There’s something impressive about someone like Taika Waititi taking all of that Marvel money that’s just sitting in a room in his house and making a movie that he otherwise never would have been able to get financed. A coming-of-age comedy about Nazis isn’t exactly on the wish lists of most studios in 2019. And there are times when “Jojo Rabbit” feels almost like an answer to the question: “Hey, Taika, what are you gonna do with all that 'Ragnarok' cash?”
Having said that, ambition only gets you so far, and the originality of this self-proclaimed "anti-hate satire" subsides after a few minutes. "Jojo Rabbit" doesn’t quite come together the way its opening promises and, most shockingly, lacks the punch it needs to really work. It’s far from the disaster it could have been given the tonal tightrope it walks, but it’s also closer to a misfire than we all hoped it would be. Believe it or not, the “Hitler Comedy” plays it too safe.
“What if Wes Anderson made a Nazi comedy?” is a reasonable way to pitch “Jojo Rabbit” to someone interested in seeing it. Waititi’s goofy comic sensibility adapts the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens into a coming-of-age story that just happens to be set in the fading days of World War II Germany. There is where we meet Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a sweet German boy headed off to Nazi camp, where young men learn to throw grenades and young women learn the importance of having Aryan babies (an instructor played by Rebel Wilson brags about having 18 so far). He’s eager to join the Nazi party, tossing out “Heil Hitlers” with confidence when he’s not talking to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself, played with goofy energy by Waititi in a character not in the entirely-serious book. The writer/director portrays one of the most villainous people in history as a bumbling moron, always offering cigarettes to his 10-year-old buddy and suggesting very bad ideas.
Luckily, just around when the ‘Goofy Hitler’ schtick is getting tired, it recedes into the background for the most important plot of “Jojo Rabbit” when Jojo finds a Jew hiding in his attic, played by the wonderful Thomasin McKenzie (“Leave No Trace”). We know that it is Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson), who is also working for the resistance, who has hidden the girl, but Jojo’s incredibly confused. After all, this Jew doesn’t look or act like a monster. He begins talking to her, trying to learn the truth about Jews so he can write a book, and forms a relationship that changes him. The parallel between the imaginary friend who is actually a monster and the girl he’s been told is a monster but is actually a friend is a nice one to unpack, and Waititi is careful not to push the arc's melodrama too much. McKenzie is delightful and Johansson is sweet and tender—they both add much needed warmth to the film.
"Jojo Rabbit" derails when its premise wears off and you start to wonder what it all means. A kid talks to Hitler and realizes Jews can dance—and there’s some tragedy along the way. That's it? I kept waiting for “Jojo Rabbit” to become more than a wink-wink, nudge-nudge joke, and when it does try to get emotional in the final act, including a tone-deaf ending for a Nazi character played by Sam Rockwell, Waititi can’t navigate some very tricky tonal waters. Without giving anything away, the final scenes of “Jojo Rabbit” are too easy for a film that needs to be dangerous and daring. A film that starts as audacious becomes relatively generic as it goes along, and even its one shocking turn ends up feeling manipulative. If the premise is risky, the execution is depressingly not so.
When one steps back from “Jojo Rabbit” and looks at the individual pieces, there’s a lot to admire. Once again, the director of "Boy" and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" proves to have a gift with child actors, drawing a great performance from Davis and a nearly-movie-stealing Archie Yates as his pudgy buddy at Nazi camp. And a score by Michael Giacchino and cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (“The Master”) work together to accomplish that Anderson-esque atmosphere that Waititi was seeking. It’s clear that success has allowed Waititi to hire all the right people to execute his vision. And yet I left “Jojo Rabbit” thinking that the exact purpose of that vision remained blurry.
This review was filed from the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8th.
Roman Griffin Davis as Johannes "Jojo" Betzler
Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa Korr
Taika Waititi as Adolf Hitler
Scarlett Johansson as Rosie Betzler
Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf
Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm
Alfie Allen as Sub-Officer Finkel