From The Great Dictator (1940) to Der Fuehrer’s Face (2012), comedies about Nazism have long proven that political filmmaking and comedy can do each other a whole lot of good. There’s a reason movies like The Death of Stalin (2017) get banned in Russia. This was the subversive promise of Jojo Rabbit, the latest from beloved director Taika Waititi: a coming-of-age comedy about a wide-eyed, underdog who’s picked on by his peers and confides in his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Now, that’s how you cash a blank check folks.
Adapted from Christine Leunen’s Caging the Sky, Jojo Rabbit is set in Germany during the final year of World War II, joining 10-year old sweetie pie Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he heads off to a Hitler Youth camp. But, despite his bright-eyed determination to be a good little Nazi, Jojo has his fair share of troubles: a dead sister, a father at war, and a weak stomach for unconscionable acts of cruelty. Providing counsel is Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself as a goofy valley girl). Kicked out of training camp after a freak pipe-bomb accident, Jojo winds up spending more time at home and discovers to his horror that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been harboring a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie). Aghast, but knowing that exposing Elsa would put his mother in danger, Jojo and Elsa get to talking, forcing Jojo to rethink the enemy he’s been taught to hate.
Jojo Rabbit’s opening promises an enjoyable degree of irreverence as Jojo tries his best to succeed at the nazi training camp for kids, run by a rag-tag assemblage of exasperated and absent-minded instructors (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen). It’s like if Moonrise Kingdom (2012) had a tryst with The Producers (1967), and a lot of the jokes land, even if they are low-hanging. In typical Waititi fashion, everyone is marvelously cast and does a great job. Johansson is endearing as the wokest woman of 1945, and Rockwell is charming as an exhausted Nazi, defeated and saddled with late-war childminding. Allen pulls off several miracles of background acting, and newcomer Archie Yatesas Jojo’s pal Yorki is so catastrophically hilarious he frequently threatens to steal the whole damn show. Waititi continues his streak of being fantastic with child actors as evidenced by the charm and wit of Davis and McKenzie. To boot, Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography is, as ever, brilliant, and evokes many a Wes Anderson pan.
Much was made of the film’s “anti-hate satire” tagline, and as ridiculous as that promotional flourish was, the bottom line is that Jojo Rabbit is too general and too silly to really upset anybody. It’s not that Jojo Rabbit doesn’t get laughs (I will readily admit that I chuckled a fair amount). But the point of satire isn’t just to make a thing ridiculous, it’s to make a thing ridiculous in order to reveal something. And because Jojo Rabbit never takes that extra step, the result is something that’s risky in premise but lukewarm in execution. I kept waiting for Jojo Rabbit to pitch a big punch, but Waititi’s casual lunacy proved just too polite for anything in the realm of a big, dangerous swing.
Nazism in Jojo Rabbit is reserved for either cartoonish Stephen King bullies or neutered goofballs, and detours through Rilke’s poetry reduce Jojo’s indoctrination to nothing more than a childish misunderstanding. Not taking Hitler or the ideology he stands for seriously isn’t enough to take away his power. In fact, as enjoyable as it is to watch, Waititi’s Hitler is actually pretty irrelevant to the film to the point where you could edit him out and nothing would really be lost, narratively speaking.
Jojo Rabbit‘s comedy is one thing, but the film’s politics never simmer above love-can-fix-everything platitudes that feel garish and ring false in the context of such an unthinkable historical horror show. That Nazis are dumb and that it’s possible to get along (and even fall for) the enemy isn’t nearly as daring a notion as the film wants it to be. As a satire, Jojo Rabbit is too cute and twee to land a punch, let alone to grapple with the grim realities of 1945.
Stories about World War II — and more broadly about hate, redemption, and survival — are important stories to tell. But they require a level of complexity that just isn’t present in Jojo Rabbit. To be clear: the film is not a mess. When you take a step back and survey things from a distance there’s a lot to like: some of the comedy really works, the kids are charming, and the vision is there. But to what end? I’m not sure. To show us that Nazis as stupid? That both Jews and Nazis were people? That hardly feels like groundbreaking humanism, let alone a hard-hitting enough point to justify the tonal tightrope the film has elected to walk. Jojo Rabbit is a fine film in a craftsmanly sense. But as a satire, it lacks bite.