The tale of a rabidly anti-Semitic 10-year-old Nazi who falls, in spite of himself, for a teenage Jewish girl hidden by his mom under a staircase, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is part goofball comedy, part Holocaust drama. The parts fit together … not remotely. It’s fun when the boy, Jojo, conjures up an imaginary Hitler as his mentor (think Bogart in Play It Again, Sam or Elvis in True Romance), except this Hitler (played by the director) turns out to be a hapless boob whose advice is always disastrous. (Good bit: Der Führer asks not for a high five but a heil — i.e., “Give me a heil!”) I laughed when pompous Nazi stumblebums explained that Jews are monsters because their ancestors mated with fish, and when kids whom the Nazis pressed into fighting clumsily misaimed their rocket launchers: Kaboom! Most of the slapstick jokes land. But then, all of a sudden, people I cared about were hanging by the neck in the town square, and Jojo Rabbit had become another thing entirely: a straight-up weeper, with hugs and tears.
You might ask, “Why be a stickler for tone — i.e., a hobgoblin for consistency? Shouldn’t a work find its own form?” Yes! No! It depends. Jojo Rabbit is billed as a “satire,” but true satire sticks to its guns, either by exploding language and logic altogether, as in Duck Soup, or by icily juxtaposing small-minded, egotistical clowns and large amounts of horror, as in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. But few people saw (and fewer enjoyed) The Death of Stalin, whereas the hodgepodge that is Jojo Rabbit won the audience prize at the Toronto Film Festival and could be a hit. People who can get past the shock of funny Nazis (which is admittedly harder for my tribe than others’) will laugh and cry and feel inspired. It’s a middlebrow triumph.
It helps that the kids are better than all right — they’re utterly charming. As Jojo, blond and fluffy-haired Roman Griffin Davies 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 laughably unable to defend his positions while staring into the eyes of a real person. His pal, Yorki (Archie Yates), would be a natural as Piggy in Lord of the Flies and looks particularly awkward in his Nazi regalia. As the hidden Jewish girl, Elsa, Thomasin McKenzie (so eloquently stricken as the daughter of a wayward vet in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace) leavens her suffering with a mordant wit. “Tell me everything about Jews,” he says, and she replies, “We’re like you, but human.” She calls him, endearingly, “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 Screwup.” The instructor knows the end is near for the Fatherland but goes through the motions with the idiot dregs of the Reich — the old, the lame, the halt. 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, but she’s lightly stylized, wonderfully poised. The movie’s best, most farcical scene features that grinning beanpole Stephen Merchant as an SS official swathed in black and surrounded by 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 plays the imaginary Hitler with manic energy and keeps this balloon improbably afloat.
He needs to, since it’s his Frankenstein’s monster, no one else’s. I was surprised to pick up the novel it’s based on, Christine Leunens’s Chasing Skies, and discover a book that’s not funny in the least. Leunens’s protagonist doesn’t remain a Huck Finn type. He loses rather than finds his moral compass and becomes a sick puppy, finally telling the Jewish girl who obsesses him that the Nazis have won the war so she’ll stay hidden in his house (and, over time, have sex with him). Waititi evidently saw the book as a way to do for Nazis what he did for vampires in What We Do in the Shadows — but lost his nerve partway through, because murderous idiot vampires are a howl, but murderous idiot Nazis require a tonal adjustment to reach the masses.
Let me add something in the movie’s favor. Although I don’t love Jojo Rabbit, I love that it exists, and was alarmed by reports that Disney — having purchased Fox’s entertainment division (including its estimable art-house arm, Fox Searchlight) — blanched to discover that it owned a Nazi comedy. Good heavens. If the Mouse is made nervous by a movie as fundamentally conventional as this one (and helmed by the money director of Thor: Ragnarok), the chances of Hollywood bankrolling serious comedies have gotten even slimmer. For extratextual reasons, then, support your local Nazi comedy.
A version of this review originally ran during the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. It has since been updated.