The laughs die quickly in Jojo Rabbit, writer-director Taika Waititi’s newest whimsical farce. Set in the dying days of Nazi Germany, a preteen would-be soldier named Jojo (played by Roman Griffin Davis) in the youth army struggles to fit in with his Reich peers. No matter, because he has the faith of his imaginary friend, a cartoonish version of Adolf Hitler played by none other than Waititi himself. Its silly and convincing opening act soon falls into one-note flatness as things turn to sentimentalism, giving us Waititi’s weakest film and one that frustrates in its fleeting successes.
Adapted from the Christine Leunens novel, the film mostly fumbles with a mix of tones from the outlandish to the melancholy. Jojo is under the influence of the political moment, fatherless and friendless with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) trying to tread the line between her son’s safety and his soul. The volatile balance is shaken when Jojo discovers a young Jewish woman named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls of their home.
The film’s certainty of its audacity only serves to underline its conceptual tepidness, even as its early laughs find the film on its surest footing. We’ve seen plenty of comedies satirizing Nazis, and with both greater comic might and gutsier takes on their subjects. It’s hard to believe that Waititi has never seen the works of Charlie Chaplin or Mel Brooks – Jojo Rabbit doesn’t just feel indebted to those films, it attempts to bogart their cultural cachet without rising to their level. It’s a weak retread that feigns originality, with Waititi’s double duty only making the film read as more self-satisfied. Had the film more overtly been assembled for young audiences, it might have felt both daring and emotionally satisfying.
But around the film’s midpoint, Waititi sacrifices the jokes for the sake of soggy sentimentalism that we’ve seen even more previous examples of on the screen, and with fewer positive results. The film turns maudlin, built on oversimplified platitudes of togetherness that overlook a real world capacity for evil action. The contemporary parallel, in Waititi’s telling, is that the growing hordes of white supremacists are just boys looking to belong. This feels like a punt away from actual gravitas, an already reductive take that the film doesn’t mine for deeper nuance anyway.
The most impactful and layered piece of Jojo Rabbit’s rote perspective is Johansson’s mother, with the actress’s subtle performance being the film’s greatest asset. Rosie is caught between performing allegiance to the Third Reich and raising a compassionate son against their culture. The film is at its best when exploring their relationship and the pull of outside influence as children reach adolescence, capturing a feeling that is both universal and complicated by circumstance. Where most of the film overplays its pieces into obviousness, Johansson underplays into something that’s actually moving.
At times, the film is clumsy enough to be a different kind of offensive than it intends. The only impulse out of his indoctrinated hatred, aside from a midpoint development that triggers the tonal shift, is Jojo’s rising crush on Elsa. Yikes – lust supposedly cures antisemitism? By the time Sam Rockwell’s mentor reveals himself to be the cringeworthy Good Nazi trope, misguidedness and carelessness have become Jojo Rabbit’s defining traits. The emotional impact of the film especially misses the mark because of these major missteps.
It’s a handsomely produced (and probably well-intentioned) case of missed opportunity, with lively design elevating the film beyond its narrative stumbles. Mayes C. Rubeo freshly costumes the film with fablistic texture, and director of photography Mihai Malaimare maintains a sense of wit and intellectual depth even as the film fizzles. Like the surprisingly adept and varied performance by Davis as the still underdeveloped Jojo, you feel much of the elements rising to an occasion that doesn’t meet them in kind.
Jojo Rabbit was screened at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.