It used to be that everyone agreed that the Nazis were bad. It was one of the world’s universal truths, but unfortunately, because everything today has to be terrible and awful at all times, we’ve re-entered the age of neo-Nazism taking hold of many of the world’s angry white men. This has caused quite a stir with the release of Jojo Rabbit, a film whose sole existence is to skewer the Nazis for their more ridiculous aspects. Taika Waititi’s period comedy has seen mixed reactions at many film festivals due to the polarizing nature of the film’s content. Many feel like the film is made in poor taste or that Waititi greatly misunderstands the nature of what he’s seeking to satirize, but I’ll make a grand disagreement on that. How Waititi, a Māori Jewish man, seeks to deal with the stain that Nazism has left on the world and his people is completely up to him and to criticize how he chooses to go about things is quite unfair to an experience and approach that only he has known as a person and filmmaker. Now, whether or not he does it well is completely still up in the air, but the fear of how Jojo Rabbit will be received in a historical context, a fear made even more ridiculous by Disney’s, now the owner of Fox Searchlight Pictures, concern over how the film might alienate some viewers, isn’t something that I see to be a legitimate issue. To which I say: Who cares? Fuck Nazis and their feelings, too, for that matter. Who cares what they might think of the film?
At worst, you’ll just leave the theater like me: completely underwhelmed by everything Waititi brought to the table in his satire of Nazi Germany.
Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) is a young German boy infatuated with the propaganda being shoved down his throat by Nazi Germany in 1945. He loves his country and regime so much that his imaginary friend is none other than Adolf Hitler himself (Taika Waititi). At a training camp for the Hitler Youth, Johannes is tormented by his superiors about his fears, prompting the nickname Jojo Rabbit which is used to bully him. After injuring himself at said camp, he is relegated to administrative duties under the incompetent Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Finkel (Alfie Allen). Jojo soon discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been hiding a Jewish refugee (Thomasin McKenzie) in his attic, prompting Jojo to have a crisis of identity when he begins to realize that the propaganda he’s been fed his entire life might have been a lie.
The biggest problem with Jojo Rabbit is that the film is nowhere near scathing enough to justify itself as a satire against the Nazis. After such expressions of hatred, like the rally in Charlottesville, which ended up killing protestor Heather Heyer, and the many shootings committed under the guise of white nationalism, the film could have taken the opportunity to tear the Nazis a new one, but Waititi rather approaches the film with a lighthearted, whimsical attitude that often makes much of the satire fly under the radar. It sympathizes with a lot of characters not meant to be sympathized with, especially with that of Rockwell’s character, who receives another Racist Redemption Arc™, a trope that is becoming more and more irritating with each film that does it to such a talented actor. To really provide that sort of scathing critique on the ridiculousness of Nazism, you need to have a biting, perhaps even R-rated, approach to the material à la The Death of Stalin, or perhaps anything Armando Iannucci-esque for that matter. Jojo Rabbit is described as an “anti-hate” film, and I can’t argue with it on that front, but just because it’s anti-hate doesn’t mean it can’t satirize the Nazis in a way that truly treats them like the scum of history that they are.
And with that comes the biggest blow: Jojo Rabbit isn’t all that funny. There were a handful of scenes that elicited some chuckles, but nothing that ever felt truly astute or funny. This is a different level of heartbreak coming from Waititi as writer, as his previous three films, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok are three of the funniest films of this decade, with a dry, deadpan sort of humor that Waititi always nails to a T. Unfortunately, he misses the entire target with it here. Nothing feels particularly clever, and the few moments that do have sparks of ingenuity are passed over quickly and are never spoken of again.
What’s even more frustrating are the jokes being made in the film at other people’s expense.. One that primarily bothered me was the insinuation of homosexuality between two Nazi characters, despite the harsh Nazi view on homosexuality. I hate the joke that all homophobes are secretly gay (ex. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin or Mike Pence), which is simply not the case. Sure, some of them might be just from statistical probability, but it’s a comedic trope that is not only unfunny but is dangerous to propagate in a time where anti-gay hate crimes still run rampant. Homophobes typically have nothing to hide about themselves and they’re not secretly gay because of it…they’re just hateful assholes who don’t deserve the dignity of a joke.
Performances throughout the film work fine, despite the missed opportunity to propel the performances to anything particularly noteworthy with clever writing. That being said, the film does feature two standout performances in Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the Jewish girl being hidden in Jojo’s attic, and Archie Yates as Yorki, Jojo’s incompetent and bumbling best friend unenthused about Nazism in Germany. McKenzie brings a grounded energy to the film that is sorely needed in the scenes of reprieve between the unfunny humor. There’s a real sense of vulnerability in her character that isn’t afforded to many others, and McKenzie can bring that power to a role with relative ease (see: Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace). Yates, on the other hand, is just plain charming. He’s a character that brings a real likability to the film in parts that often feel constricted by a strange sense of humor. He’s a pure soul in a movie that leaves you feeling less pure than when you walked in, and that inclusion, as well as his dedication to the role, is a breath of fresh air in the midst of everything going on.
It feels most tragic that Jojo Rabbit just doesn’t feel like a movie that has all that much to say. The anti-hate messages that the film holds aren’t anything that hasn’t been covered in far more biting and relevant satires which have better handled a critique of a certain regime. The film also doesn’t feature any compelling characters aside from Elsa, who is actually given some vulnerability to work with, unlike anyone else. This, in the end, just leaves Jojo Rabbit feeling like a slapstick comedy with political undertones. Something like this should have more grit and bite to it, rather than whimsy and flutter. It’s not that Waititi is wrong in what he thinks about the Nazis, it’s just such a terrible waste of talent and platform to satirize them in such a sanitized manner.
In select theaters beginning October 11th, 2019.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.