TIFF 2019: Jojo Rabbit, by David Bax
Jojo Rabbit‘s opening titles play out against stock footage of Germans “heil”ing Adolf Hitler soundtracked by The Beatles singing “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” and the sound of screaming fans. There is satirical potential in reducing Hitler to the level of a flash-in-the-pan teen idol. But this also diminishes the danger of those who subscribe to the dictator’s monstrous idiocy. This is only the first time that Jojo Rabbit fails to effectively distinguish between Hitler and his followers but the real problem is that it so badly wants to do so in the first place.
Roman Griffin Davis plays Jojo, a ten-year-old Hitler Youth during what he doesn’t know are the final months of World War II. With his father gone for two years from military service and a presumed deserter, Jojo is eager to prove his loyalty to the reich and so desperate for a good German father figure that his imaginary friend takes the form of Hitler himself (played by director Taika Waititi). Young Jojo’s worldview is thrown into disarray, though, when he learns that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home’s crawlspace.
Waititi (adapting the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens) is eager to make fun of Nazis. What right-minded person isn’t? But his comedic sights are set too low. A Hitler Youth camp counselor (Rebel Wilson) insists that Aryans are 1,000 times more advanced than any other race and then immediately says, “Let’s burn some books!” This is shooting fish in a barrel. And Jojo Rabbit treats the word “Jew” as a punchline far too often for a movie about characters who literally aim to wipe Jews off the planet. It’s not that Jojo Rabbit isn’t funny sometimes; when Johannson’s Rosie insists that nothing is stronger than love, Jojo offers as counter examples “metal, then dynamite, then muscles.” But when a film that’s supposed to be a satire can’t gain any of its best laughs at the expense of its stated target, that film has failed.
Waititi’s continually rising star, though, has allowed him to assemble a knock-out cast. Davis and McKenzie are perfect blends of innocence and anger, one of them misguided and one of them justified. Meanwhile, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen and Stephen Merchant all entertain as idiotic Nazis. Johansson is the standout, however. Jojo Rabbit‘s biggest surprise is how well it succeeds, despite falling short of other goals, in depicting the universal hardships of single motherhood. The character of Rosie is the movie’s best.
If only the other characters could be as well-rounded. Jojo’s nickname–the one that gives the film its title–is earned by his timidity. Here, Jojo Rabbit makes its strongest case, that hatred is merely the most toxic byproduct of cowardice. But, by suggesting that Jojo’s nobility comes from the same place, Waititi tries to have his cake and eat it too.