Jojo Rabbit

February 9, 2020

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Blaming marketing campaigns is cheap knock on any product, certainly art, but JoJo Rabbit’s claim that it is an “anti-hate satire” gets at the core of the problem with the film:  It is not a satire.  Sure, there are mildly satirical elements tossed around (maybe Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo officer or the Rebel Wilson’s ridiculous Hitler Youth instructor), but overall, this is just Fascist iconography played broadly to give some element of stakes to a pretty simple and frankly insipid story of young love and overcoming prejudice. 

The latter element is tenuous at best, because it is never at all convincing that Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is in any way actually a believer.  He’s just a kid looking for acceptance etcetera etcetera, but he really doesn’t have anything to overcome.  The joke on him in the introductory sequence at the youth camp is that he’s too soft-hearted to kill a rabbit, so we know he doesn’t have a dangerous nature, nor is he even flirting realistically with the possibility of being a true Nazi.  So when he meets Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, being asked to do no heavy lifting here after her breakout in Without a Trace), the Jewish girl hiding in his house with the assistance of his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), it becomes a film about a 10 year old boy having his first crush, and nothing at all convincingly about a brainwashed kid finding the humanity in The Other.  Not that this was at all the movie or the script to attempt that sort of thing, because even the far more hard-edged and serious-in-its-approach American History X couldn’t convincingly portray the change from radical hatred to empathy, relying on a hokey scene involving a joke in a prison laundry room.  Exploring the roots of hatred and what it takes to get beyond it is incredibly difficult business, and I almost admire writer/director Taika Waititi for sidestepping the issue altogether.

Which leaves us with the “why”.  Why did this story need to be adapted?  Why does this have to be about Nazi kid in the final days of the Reich?  The answer, I suspect, is because Waititi thought a goofy imaginary Hitler was a funny idea in and of itself, which leads to the other major issue: it’s just not very funny.  It relies on visual gags of kids with weapons, absurd beliefs in the nature of Jews, and that damned campy Hitler for humor, and none of it really lands.  The latter is particularly egregious, considering Chaplin did it fantastically 70 years ago in a film that was a genuine satire.  The only time I laughed came when Jojo was reading a fake letter from Elsa’s fiancee, and the throws in a denigrating line about “he’s not got much going for him”, which is only funny because it’s an anachronistic adult line being said by a ten year old, a tactic that feels a little cheap. 

All that said, the performances go a long way to giving the film enough charm to prevent almost constant groaning.  The lead kids are cute enough, and Archie Yates as Jojo’s friend Archie stands out.  Sam Rockwell gets a lot of mileage out of his secretly homosexual Captain, but Scarlett Johansson really raises the material as Jojo’s mom.  She brings both a genuine kindness to the beatific mother figure, and also grounds her scenes in a certain optimistic-despite-the-tragedy heft that elevates every scene she’s in. 

That leads me to *spoilers* the scene that might best exemplify the filmmaking.  After establishing her red shoes (dancing is a motif) over and over again, Jojo walks through the town square and comes across his mother hanging in the square.  We only ever see her legs, and we know it’s her first because Waititi has established the shoes.  Then we watch Jojo look up and realize, and there’s genuine sadness to the scene, until Waititi cuts to inserts of a attic windows in the square that look like eyes, immediately wrecking that brief moment of genuine emotional turmoil with an achingly obvious visual device. 

Jojo Rabbit feels like a movie from the mid-2000s, when Focus Features, Fox Searchlight, and a slew of other indie-majors were furiously acquiring and producing indie films with enough quirkiness and maybe a little edge to appeal to more “discerning” audiences (20 year old college student tastemakers) while still relying on traditional Hollywood heart-string pulling tropes to make a play for mass appeal.  Back then, this probably could have skated through, and I suppose it is right now with its multiple Oscar nominations and flabbergasting screenplay award wins, despite the fact that there’s a whole internet hot take machine ready to crush a film about Nazis and Jewish survivors in the age of Charlottesville that somehow doesn’t engage with any of it and instead uses it as a cheap trope for childish whimsy.  It gets a lot of comparisons to the works of Wes Anderson, and while it certainly apes his production design fussiness, his color palette, his soundtracks, and even his interest in kids confronting an adult world, it somehow completely misses the pathos of his films.  That failure, in a film about Nazis, is its most conspicuous achievement. 

-M

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