Saturday, November 2, 2019


What would’ve made Jojo Rabbit provocative around, say, 1939 or 1949, is instead well-trod and simplistic territory. Its thinness threatens to cheapen its sweetness and short-circuit its obvious anti-hate aims with sentimental obviousness and misfiring satirical tone. Set in Germany during the last gasp of World War II, the action follows a fanatical, adorable 10-year-old boy (Roman Griffin Davis) who desires nothing more than to be a good Hitler Youth and catch a Jew for the Führer. He begins the film at a Nazi summer camp, pitched by writer-director Taika Waititi as a Fascist Moonrise Kingdom, with fastidious framing for boys in short pants and cockeyed grins learning to toss grenades and burn books in between their classes of anti-Semitic curriculum. There we meet the ensemble of mincing Nazis straight out of "Springtime for Hitler" — a dopey low-ranking officer (Sam Rockwell), his close (maybe very close) second-in-command (Alfie Allen), their overeager third-in-command Fräulein (Rebel Wilson), and a cavalcade of cruel Aryan teens and tweens — as they march about with sloppy accent work and inconsistent characterization. It’s always on the edge of overdoing it, tipping over from stale exaggeration into loosey-goosey cartoony lightness that verges precariously on endearing buffoonery. Of course, eventually, it sends the viewer smashing into the horror of it all with their ugly beliefs casually spouted and violence a constant underlying threat. We’re at once to fear and mock them. The movie furthers its insistence on their inherent ridiculousness with preposterous costumes and stumbling stupidity, while showing us judiciously — and maybe too sparingly — dead bodies strung up in the city square or rubble from bombed out buildings.

Meanwhile, Jojo himself is given an imaginary friend, a wildly exaggerated caricatured Hitler (Waititi himself) who whispers Nazi talking points between chummy buddy comedy shenanigans. The conceit is essential to the way Waititi makes his point about the way the ideology loomed over boys like Jojo, and yet I think it’d be a better movie in almost every way without it. It toes a tricky line, risking softening the cruelty into cutesy asides, while bolstering a potentially fine metaphor about the ways the brutal, simplistic talking points of a tyrant could worm their way into the internal monologue of impressionable young boys. At one point, a clownish Gestapo agent (Stephen Merchant) will turn up in Jojo’s room and, upon spying propaganda posters on the wall, praise the lad for showing such admirable “blind fanaticism.” (One wonders if the movie’s punches would land harder if it were set in present America, and the boy donned a red ball cap instead.) The movie’s vision of childhood innocence channeled blindly into an evil worldview comes to a head as he discovers his saintly mother (Scarlett Johansson) — presented as a subtle anti-war protestor nonetheless maintaining a bubble of carefree protection for her son — has been hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Why the mother would chalk up their differing ideologies to political disagreement, let alone allow her son to sign up for the Nazi camp given her political concerns and quiet resistance activism is beyond me. At least his eager indoctrination is sent into conflict as he grows to care about the hidden girl, spending hours getting to know her and brewing a crush in the process. Why, she’s just like them, he discovers, although the process of allowing this personal connection to detox his brainwashing proceeds in the fits and starts of a boyish brain.

Because the movie is wedded to Jojo’s perspective, it excuses some of the shorthand and naiveté in the way the characters and situations are developed. Waititi’s filmmaking — as you’d expect from the guy who brought us the melancholy silliness of What We Do in the Shadows and who is on the short list of auteurs who managed to put personality in a Marvel product with his Thor Ragnarok — is sprightly and energetic with smash cuts, goofy asides, and German-language covers of classic rock on the soundtrack. The child performances are ebulliently charming and effervescently precocious. Some of the humor — a scene of protracted “Heil”ing, or an enormously cute sidekick kid (Archie Yates) who gets the best lines and gives the best hugs — really works, a sweetness and a sadness sitting together quite well. But the movie also ramps up the sentimentality, and looks for easy equivocation and borrowed insight. It often avoids the real nastiness and violence undergirding the situation — allusions to the darkest horrors made briefly, if at all — while allowing notes of grace in the unlikeliest of persons. Moments of tragedy are held just off screen, giving Jojo reason to grow in his understanding of the world, while allowing the audience to remain comfortable, crafting cutesy Nazis in such a way that the satire occasionally loses its teeth. The movie does find a character at its center who is wonderfully realized and expressive, with a kind of self-reflective performance from young Davis that shows wisdom beyond his years in portraying a boy slowly gaining glimmers of awakening perspective. Yet he does this while the filmmaking around him is, ironically, a tad too juvenile to truly confront the horrors it is ostensibly using as the moral gymnasium on which its character is to stretch and grow. (A final battle scene is stunningly mismanaged, with its cartoony Nazis stumbling into very real conflict — too heightened to sting properly.) I couldn’t dismiss the movie’s craft, good intentions, or the fine debut at its center, but its inability to go any deeper than its surface of recycled weren’t-Nazis-silly? and can't-we-all-get-along? observations are another story. I appreciated its attempt, but the overly-simplistic rendering of the world leaves it feeling shallower and shallower the longer I think about it. I loved Jojo enough to wish the movie was up to the task of telling his story in the full complexity it deserves.

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