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Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit.

Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Written and directed by Taika Waititi
  • Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson and Taika Waititi
  • Classification: PG
  • 108 minutes

rating

Jojo Rabbit offers the fall movie season’s trickiest tightrope. Just teetering on the edge of bad taste, and very occasionally tipping over into stone-cold comedic genius, Taika Waititi’s film is a terrifying act of daredevilism. There is a morbid thrill in watching a film and being mentally prepared for tragedy, and ecstatic relief in coming out the other end relatively unscathed.

Such is the case, in the year 2019, of experiencing anything marketed as an “anti-hate satire.” What’s more: an anti-hate satire set in Germany during the waning days of the Second World War and focusing on a schoolboy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who has an obsession with the Nazi Party, an orphaned Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic and frequent conversations with an imaginary friend in the form of the Fuhrer (Waititi).

Reviews of movies opening this week, including the anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit, suffocating The Lighthouse and sentimental Pain and Glory

The knives have been out for Jojo Rabbit for some time, basically since Waititi announced that he was loosely adapting Christine Leunens’s 2004 book Caging Skies. The disturbance in the discourse was partly owing to the New Zealand director’s uber-quirky Wes Anderson-y sensibilities, which can either grate (Eagle vs Shark) or disarm (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and partly because it seems grotesquely absurd that someone could have the temerity to go from making a rainbow-pop-y comic-book adventure such as Thor: Ragnarok to anything touching the Holocaust. Especially a Holocaust comedy. Extra-especially a Holocaust comedy in which the filmmaker himself would take a leading role as history’s greatest monster. It all seemed such a feckless proposition – a realization of the core conceit in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, but without the self-awareness.

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Yet, hearing about Jojo Rabbit and watching it are two different things. Sure, the film often mixes up its priorities; the set and costume designs favour a style-over-substance approach that borders on swastika fetishism, no matter the ironic intentions. And there are whopping giveaways that Waititi’s script sprang from just a handful of (admittedly sharp) visual gags, with the filmmaker only then deigning to reverse-engineer the thing to add some measure of character and emotional connection. But Jojo Rabbit does ultimately pull off its perverse proposition. This is a sincerely told horror show with heart, an absurd and tragic and delicate and, not infrequently, funny story about how hate is manufactured – and defeated.

Much of Waititi’s success here rests with his knack for child-casting, starting with first-time performer Davis. Any other 10-year-old boy tasked with taking on such a character – a sweet and extremely gullible victim of indoctrination – would have been unbearable. Davis, with his wide and eager eyes, and slightly curious line readings, hits exactly the right balance of believable and sympathetic – a confused little thing who you’d want to protect with all your life. McKenzie, more of a known quantity because of her work in last year’s excellent Leave No Trace, does similarly deft work as Elsa, who starts off having great self-deprecating fun playing the faux-boogeyman for Jojo, only to affectingly twist their relationship into something deeper and more painful.

Scarlett Johansson plays Jojo's mother, but feels miscast and stranded by Waititi's direction.

Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox

There is less success on the adult side. Scarlett Johansson is miscast as Jojo’s Allies-aligned mother, with the performer feeling stranded by her director in a handful of particularly cringe-inducing moments where she must convince us that she cares more for Jojo than herself. And while Sam Rockwell acquits himself as well as ever playing a disaffected Nazi mentor to Jojo, after similar roles in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Best of Enemies, the actor needs to find himself a new shtick.

Perhaps Waititi was more consumed with casting himself as Jojo’s fantastical Hitler, an are-you-sure-about-that idea that turns out to be a solid one. Waititi isn’t trying to ape Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator so much as he is making Hitler another in a long line of Waititi’s on-screen buffoons – an easily offended and oft-raging idiot who can be a target for audience distaste while still being entirely compelling via a sort of backward deadpan. (“Heil me, man!” his Hitler at one point desperately asks Jojo.)

Still, missed and misunderstood opportunities abound. Waititi opens the film with archival footage of the real Hitler greeting adoring fans, all backed by a German cover of The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand – a potentially interesting dissection of fanaticism and fascism, but one that goes nowhere.

More troublingly, the film has a core misunderstanding of what exactly satire is. Jojo Rabbit certainly exaggerates, ridicules and lampoons the Nazis, to often boisterously humorous effect, but it isn’t exposing anything or arguing an uncomfortable truth through a sharp comedic lens. There is nothing especially satirical about saying Nazis were horrible people, that their ideas were evil and that there were many idiots who became enamoured with the atmosphere of hate that so choked Europe at the time. There is no indictment of our own viewpoints today, no finger being pointed in our direction. It is more an exercise in mockery, in gentle and rather easy comedy. If this is satire, then it is playing far too nice and easy, a misinterpretation or even perversion of the term.

It would be tempting to lay this problem at the feet of Fox Searchlight’s marketing team, which decided to plaster the words “anti-hate satire” across all of Jojo’s promotional materials. But this is not a branding misstep; this is what Waititi has freely admitted to being his idea of satire. Jojo Rabbit is a big-hearted comedy, a spoof of bozos and buffoons that is all fine and often welcome. But something has gone wrong when a film appears to misunderstand its own gags.

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Waititi believes he’s fighting a war against hate. It’s more a case of shooting Nazis in a barrel.

Jojo Rabbit opens Oct. 25 in Toronto before expanding to other Canadian cities Nov. 1

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