****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. This film is funny at times and definitely worth seeing, but only at matinee prices, or until you can see it for free on Netflix.
JoJo Rabbit, written and directed by Taika Waititi, is based upon the Christine Leunens novel Caging Skies and tells the story of Jojo, a ten year old Hitler youth in Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler. The film stars Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, with supporting turns from Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell and Stephen Merchant.
Jojo Rabbit is an ambitious cinematic undertaking that describes itself as an “anti-hate satire”. As someone who hates the vacuous woke rhetoric of “anti-hate” and believes that hate is not only normal but a vital part of the human condition, that tag line is a turn-off. But then I discovered that the film was a dark Nazi comedy, and since I have long whined about the fact that World War II movies, be they drama or documentary, always and every time make Hitler out to be the bad guy, the film then became more intriguing to me. After being lured in by the prospect of Nazi-induced laughs, I pulled the trigger and went to see Jojo Rabbit. Thankfully, the film lives up to its premise and remedies the past anti-Hitler cinematic injustices and gives audiences the wacky and zany Hitler we’ve always wanted.
In all seriousness, making a Nazi comedy, especially in these hyper-sensitive, hot-take abundant times, is an act of artistic derring-do. Jojo Rabbit for the most part succeeds in pulling off this most difficult of feats. If I am judging the movie on pass/fail, it passes. That said, it is a good film, not a great one.
The credit and the blame for the film’s better than average and less than terrific outcome, is writer/director/supporting actor Taika Waititi. The first and only other time I’ve seen a Waititi film was when I watched Thor: Ragnorak while bleary-eyed on a cross country flight. I hadn’t ventured out to the theatre to see Ragnorak out of sheer Marvel fatigue, and so, due to boredom, checked it out on my flight. To say I was blown away is an understatement. I was totally mesmerized as I watched this Marvel masterpiece that was funny, smart and insightful, play out on the tiny screen mere inches from my face on the cramped plane. Waititi brings the same level of inventiveness and ingenuity to Jojo Rabbit that animatedThor: Ragnorak.
Waititi not only wrote and directed the film but co-stars as Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf Hitler. The film is at its best when Waititi, a charismatic performer, is on-screen. Waititi’s masterful Hitler bits crackle and had the audience at my screening, myself included, laughing out loud. The problem though is that they are too few and far between. After the first fifteen minutes or so, Waititi’s Hitler vanishes from the film for long stretches, and those stretches scuttle all of the film’s giddy and insane momentum.
In my opinion I think the film should have been more of a Harvey-esque story, with Hitler being a constant companion to Jojo rather than the star of brief interludes. I think this approach would have not only made the film more consistently funny and bizarre, but also more dramatically potent and poignant. Again, I understand that the film must’ve been limited by the source material, but source material needs to be adapted to the screen, and my suggestion should have been part of that adaptation.
As for the cast, it is as wildly uneven as the film. Roman Griffin Davis is very good as the Jojo, the committed Nazi boy with the active imagination. Davis plays everything straight and it is his commitment to truth that makes his Hitler sidekick so funny.
Sam Rockwell does his usual stellar work as Captain Klenzendorf, a down on his luck German soldier. Rockwell elevates what could have been a Sgt. Schultz level caricature into a brilliantly comedic yet painfully human portrayal. Rockwell fills each moment and movement with a dynamic intentionality that is simply brilliant.
Stephen Merchant has a small role as a member of the Gestapo and he is both funny and exceedingly unnerving. Merchant’s usual banal goofiness takes on a menacing tone as he is imbued with the dark power of Nazism.
Thomasin Mckenzie is an actress I really like, her Mickey Award®© (Breakout Performance of the Year) winning work in Leave No Trace was fantastic, but here she does the best she can with a rather pedestrian role. McKenzie’s Elsa is the dramatic counter-weight to the film’s comedy, but the character is so one-dimensional as to be cliched, and thus the film never sustains the dramatic heft it desires. The narrative shift to Elsa is ill-conceived and feels like an albotross around the film’s neck.
Scarlett Johansson does not fare so well either, as she is handed a paper thin character and does little to put any meat on the bones. Johansson’s Rosie is like a #Resistance manic pixie dream girl for the World War II set. I found her performance to be grating, aggravatingly shallow and irritatingly frivolous.
Rebel Wilson has a small role as a Nazi Fraulein that goes over like a lead(Pb) zeppelin. I have often wondered aloud “what in the world is the appeal of Rebel Wilson?” I don’t get it…I don’t get it at all..NOT…AT…ALL. Wilson is not funny…not even a little bit. Her bits in Jojo Rabbit are painfully unfunny and fall thunderously flat. Rebel Wilson is one of the great mysteries of our time and I am hoping she goes away before I have to exert any mental energy trying to figure out her appeal.
The bottom line is this regarding Jojo Rabbit…it is most definitely a flawed film, but it does pull off an amazing feat by being a crowd-pleasing Nazi comedy. Waititi’s Hitler humor and Rockwell and Merchant’s Nazi comedy are uproariously satisfying. While the film can be at times cinematically uneven and dramatically trite, at other times it is tantalizingly original and combustibly hysterical.
Jojo Rabbit is the type of film, both politically simplistic and emotionally manipulative, that may catch fire and garner Oscar buzz. I do not think it is an Oscar level film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable cinematic experience. I thoroughly enjoyed Jojo Rabbit despite its faults, and I think people should see it, they just shouldn’t pay $14 to see it. My recommendation is to either pay matinee prices or wait until it hits Netflix before seeing Jojo Rabbit. It isn’t a perfect film, or even a great one, but it is an interesting one, and in these artistically cowardly times, that ain’t nothing.