Jojo Rabbit should not work.
That’s not a review because it’s not an opinion, it’s just a statement of fact. Jojo Rabbit, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not just a film about a young member of the Hitler Youth who dreams of becoming the Führer’s personal bodyguard; it is a comedy about a young member of the Hitler Youth who dreams of becoming the Führer’s personal bodyguard. (Between this and Anthony Hopkins’s critically acclaimed turn as Pope Benedict XVI in The Two Popes, it’s a big festival for the Hitler Youth.) And it is not just a comedy in the Golden Globes sense. Jojo Rabbit happens to be an incredibly silly comedy — sample joke: “You know what I am.” “A Jew.” “Gesundheit.” — that features director Taika Waititi playing Hitler as a buffoonish imaginary friend, and opens with a montage where newsreel footage of real Nazi rallies plays over the Beatles’ “Komm, gib mir deine Hand.”
Actually, that’s not quite right. The movie really opens with the triumphant 20th Century Fox fanfare turning into a Third Reich theme song. Reports have suggested that executives at Disney, which finds itself releasing Jojo Rabbit after acquiring the film as part of Fox Searchlight’s slate, have been somewhat flabbergasted by their new big fall movie. I believe it.
So yes, everyone in Toronto can agree that, on paper, Jojo Rabbit shouldn’t work. What they have trouble agreeing on is everything else. Waititi is aiming for the same blend of tone and subject matter that turned Roberto Benigni into a laughingstock (an Oscar-winning laughingstock, but still), that even Jerry Lewis himself couldn’t bring himself to release, and not everyone here is convinced he’s pulled it off. Where you land will probably depend on how much you consider Waititi’s sense of humor, honed on HBO’s Flight of the Conchords and introduced to the masses on Thor: Ragnarok, an end in itself. The audience at my press-and-industry screening Monday morning seemed to eat it up, and at the premiere it received a lengthy standing ovation — though I suspect in both cases those who were less enthralled may have been keeping schtum, because the reviews have told a different story. Jojo Rabbit currently has a 49 on Metacritic and a 55 on Rotten Tomatoes, and in this case, that’s not a wishy-washy 50. Slashfilm’s Chris Evangelista calls it “one of the year’s best films.’ Keith Uhlich at Slant gives it zero stars. Even a mixed review like Owen Gleiberman’s in Variety ultimately dubs it a “defanged black comedy [that wants] to leave us feeling good about the fact that we’re above a feel-good movie.” Unlike many of the dutiful, middlebrow entries at TIFF, this is not a film that tends to inspire bland reactions.
Which side will you fall on with Jojo Rabbit? Here is a handy guide:
— Does the phrase “Moonrise Kingdom, but in the Third Reich” sound to you like a compliment or an insult?
— Do you enjoy puns?
— Do you particularly enjoy stupid puns?
— Does the idea of Adolf Hitler as a sassy, advice-giving pal make you chuckle or wince?
— Would you laugh if Wehrmacht soldiers were presented as figures of campy fun?
— Do you agree that German accents are funnier when they are done poorly?
— Are you not morally opposed to any story about the Holocaust that has a happy ending?
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, then you are like me: a spiritually compromised philistine who loved Jojo Rabbit. If you answered no, well, you are going to have a lot to argue about this fall. In Toronto, at least, the pros seem to be outnumbering the antis. This is not a movie for everyone, but everyone it is for seems to be right here.