What a weird hodgepodge is Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, the fitfully hilarious, ultimately tear-jerking tale of a 10-year-old German Nazi who falls in spite of himself for a Jewish teenager he discovers hidden under a staircase. It’s billed as a “satire,” but true satire locates unexpected truths by turning the world upside down (or inside out, or by making the characters animals, etc.), whereas there’s nothing startling about, say, Nazi stumblebums lecturing kids that Jews are monsters because an early one mated with a fish. When the boy, Jojo, conjures up an imaginary tutor like Bogart in Play it Again, Sam or Elvis in True Romance, it’s Adolf Hitler himself — except that Hitler is a hapless boob whose advice is always terrible. It’s fun to see der Führer asking for a heil instead of a high five — but then, all of a sudden, people we care about are hanging by the neck in the town square and Jojo Rabbit becomes another thing entirely.
You might ask, “Why be a stickler for tone — i.e., a hobgoblin for consistency? Shouldn’t a work find its own form?” Good questions! I wish I had better answers. What I know is that, for example, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin was especially impressive for maintaining its icy tone to the bitter end, as small-minded egotistical clowns inflicted large amounts of horror. But few people saw (and fewer enjoyed) The Death of Stalin, whereas the world-premiere audience at the Toronto International Film Festival went nuts for Jojo Rabbit. Once people get past the shock of funny Nazis (which is admittedly harder for my tribe than others), it’s a middlebrow triumph — and could be a sizable hit.
It helps that the kids are better than all right — they’re utterly charming. As Jojo, blond and fluffy-haired Roman Griffin Davis has Aryan coloring but wide-apart eyes that look as if they’d be difficult to bring into alignment, and big teeth that suit his derisive nickname, Jojo Rabbit — bestowed after he runs away rather than break the neck of a rabbit to prove his Nazi mettle during military training. His Jojo is a Nazi Huck Finn — obnoxious in his certainty but unable to maintain it in the face of real life. His pal, Yorki (Archie Yates), would be a natural as Piggy in Lord of the Flies and looks particularly awkward in his Nazi regalia — plus he has no animus for Jews and tends to aim explosives in the wrong direction. Thomasin McKenzie, so eloquently stricken as the daughter of a wayward vet in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, suffers just as movingly as the hidden Jewish girl, Elsa, but leavens her performance with mischievousness and mordancy. Asked by Jojo to tell him everything about Jews, she says, “We’re like you, but human,” and then adds an endearing “Dummkopf.”
Though he goes soft in the end, Sam Rockwell is an amusingly nihilistic Nazi instructor, forced to teach little kids after losing an eye in what he calls “Operation Screw-Up.” He knows the end is near for the Fatherland but goes through the motions with the idiot dregs of the Reich. Scarlett Johansson plays Jojo’s glamorous mother, who’s not especially funny given that she loathes the Third Reich and toils in secret to stop the war. I’ve never quite understood why Johansson isn’t given more props. She’s lightly stylized, wonderfully poised, and every inch a movie star. I won’t get into her recent defense of Woody Allen, which is a far bigger subject than I can explore here. Best to stick with something easier, like klutzy Nazis. The movie’s best, most farcical scene features that grinning beanpole Stephen Merchant as an SS official swathed in black and surrounded by similarly black-suited, interchangeably named minions. Watch his smile spread pumpkin-wide as he surveys Jojo’s bedroom with its Hitler posters and assorted swastikas: “Now, this is my kind of little boy’s room.”
Waititi himself plays Hitler the imaginary friend with manic energy, helping to keep this balloon improbably afloat. The Kiwi auteur hasn’t quite found his voice, but what works as disparate as this one, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Thor: Ragnarok share is a belief that no subject is too serious for comedy. Even if I don’t love Jojo Rabbit (which is based on a novel by Christine Leunens that I now intend to read), I love that it exists and that Waititi has forced me to reexamine my own responses. I love that — apart from another Thor picture — I have no clue what he’ll do next.