The Feel-Good Story of 'Jojo Rabbit' Doesn't Fit With Nazi Hate
Here are a few of the epithets about Jews thrown around in Taika Waititi's new WWII satire Jojo Rabbit: They're horned scaly creatures with serpent's tongues, they have powers of mind control, they smell like Brussels sprouts, and there's a Queen Jew who lays her eggs somewhere. These are horrible, bigoted notions, but they're also ridiculous, and that's basically the point. The driving idea behind Waititi's movie is that hate, when you really look at it, is silly.
Despite the fact that it's set during and is about the Holocaust, Jojo Rabbit is often a very silly movie. Writer-director Waititi, a Polynesian Jew from New Zealand, plays Hitler. Not historical Hitler, exactly, but the imaginary friend of a German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who's obsessed with Nazism. It's obvious from the beginning that Jojo isn't really evil -- he's a naive 10-year-old whose nation has told him that persecuting others is super cool, and if he does so he'll rule the world. In the absence of a father figure or really any friends, Jojo sees the Führer as a guardian angel of sorts, and conjures imaginary Hitler up in times of desperation -- like when he's being bullied at Nazi camp, or when he discovers that his mother is hiding a teenage Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home.
The film opens with Jojo on his way to Hitler Youth Camp, a sort of racist Moonrise Kingdom where the protagonist accidentally blows himself up with a grenade in a futile attempt to show off to his peers. He lands back at home with scars on his face, coaxed out of his melancholy by his staunchly upbeat mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Rosie's clearly no fan of the Nazi agenda and pushes back against Jojo's growing fanaticism, but also understands that she must maintain appearances to protect her family. Her work keeps her away from the house for long periods, and by the time Jojo stumbles upon Elsa, it's pretty clear that Rosie is covertly part of the resistance.
Elsa emerges from her hiding spot confirming all of Jojo's worst suspicions. She moves as if she were in a horror movie, a golem with hair in front of her face and creeping fingers. She's messing with Jojo, using his blind ignorance to maintain the upper hand and keep him quiet. He, in crisis, turns to his pal Hitler, who, naturally, gives terrible advice. In Waititi's hands he's a supportive but bloviating fool who keeps offering the very young Jojo cigarettes and brags about having unicorn for dinner. Waititi stays away from the screeching parodies often associated with the dictator for a softer spin on the heinous character, filtered through the distinctive Kiwi timing that was on display in his films like What We Do in The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Waititi's Hitler is funny, certainly, but it gets at one of the issues with Jojo that's been gnawing at me every since I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival last month: The movie just never paints the Nazis as being frightening as they actually were (and are). Every character working for the Third Reich -- from Sam Rockwell's one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf to Stephen Merchant's Gestapo officer with shades of Indiana Jones' Arnold Toht -- is more amusing than terrifying. (Side note: If I see Rockwell play one more racist with a heart of gold I'm going to scream.) In treating their inhumanity as buffoonish, Waititi makes his point about how hatred is ultimately foolish, but also underplays the terrors of Hitler's regime in favor of a purely feel-good narrative scored to German translations of pop hits.
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.