Where Jojo most nails the tricky tonal games it's trying to play are in the scenes featuring Jojo's mother, beautifully portrayed by Johansson in her second great role of the year. In Rosie, Johansson and Waititi capture a true tension. She's a woman fiercely protective of her son, but fearful of what he's becoming. She's playful even as she's exasperated, hiding her worry behind goofy faces. In one moment, Jojo, testing her patience, invokes his missing father over dinner. (Jojo thinks his dad is a Nazi war hero; it's evident he's working for the other side.) Rosie walks over to the fireplace to smear soot over her mouth as if it were a beard, bringing him to life. There's an anger in her gesture, which is in part a desire to get Jojo to stop acting out, but it turns delicate when she starts to argue with herself in character as her beloved spouse. It's a scene that has all of the whimsy that you expect from a Waititi project, but it matches that with a devastating sadness that lends the movie a weight it sometimes lacks.
Johansson isn't the only standout amid the cast. Davis, as Jojo, is an inspired discovery, as is the hilarious Archie Yates, who plays Jojo's seemingly indestructible friend Yorki. McKenzie, brilliant in last year's Leave No Trace, gives Elsa a fierce intelligence and wells of emotional depth that the screenplay sometimes doesn't afford her. They all exist in the tableau of an unidentified German city that Waititi films with an almost romantic pop art sensibility. But while there are great performances, truly amusing bits, and genuine emotional beats, all the moving parts of Jojo don't quite add up.
There's a long and glorious history of making fun of Nazis, from Lubitsch to Brooks to Tarantino, and Jojo Rabbit often feels like a worthy addition to this lineage. But it's a movie that values sweetness over outrage almost to a fault. There's a necessary anger that feels frustratingly absent from Jojo Rabbit. It's probably the perfect time to release a movie about the dangers of hateful ideology, but this one never gets at how corrosive it is. It just thinks the word "heil" is silly.