by Alan Yudman
One of the most unique voices in Hollywood belongs to Taika Waititi. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, BOY, HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. And I believe he actually saved Marvel’s Thor franchise by making the Norse God comically self-serious and lightening the character’s tone. So a comedy about Nazi’s? Sure, why not? Well, apparently a lot of people said no. Waititi says it has taken years to get this made. But it so worth the wait.
JOJO RABBIT is a masterful look at one boy’s life in Berlin as World War II is coming to an end and the Nazi regime of Adolph Hitler is being torn down. JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old wannabe Nazi. He says all the right things and wears the right clothes. But as one character points out in the film Jojo isn’t a Nazi, he dresses up in a funny uniform because he wants to be part of a club. His brain says Nazi.. his heart isn’t in it. Jojo lives alone with his mother (Scarlet Johansson). At the start of the film he is off to Nazi youth camp where it is proven that he is more frightened rabbit than killer wolf. He is wounded by a grenade and while at home recovering, he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls of their house.
That is where the story really takes off. Jojo is faced with having to get to know a Jew and his only frame of reference is the stereotypes he has learned from Nazi propaganda. His mother tries to teach him that life is about more than Hitler’s hate filled rhetoric. You have to dance, listen to music and live. But it is through his relationship with Elsa that he learns the Nazi philosophy is complete bull.
Now that sounds pretty rote. The basic themes are certainly, well, basic. But it is way Waititi tells the story that makes this an absolutely wonderful journey. One reviewer said this is very silly until it isn’t. I think that is correct. Waititi’s humor is big and broad. The opening credit sequence is done to a German version of The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and is shot and edited of a piece with A HARD DAYS NIGHT. Madcap wouldn’t be a wrong description. Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolph… as in Hitler. His performance is pure comic genius. I couldn’t stop laughing at everything he says and does. But Adolph is the evil voice on Jojo’s shoulder. His worst angel. When Jojo wavers on his beliefs, Adolph drags him back.
That is just one of several marvelous performances. Sam Rockwell as a German Captain who is in charge of the Hitler Youth camp is just fantastic. His welcome speech should earn him a supporting actor nomination. Rebel Wilson is genius as female camp counselor. Johansson is touching in the role of Jojo’s mother. And Stephen Merchant as an SS officer is spectacular.
But the two people who have to carry this movie are Davis and McKenzie. And they are both absolutely stellar. McKenzie proved her bona fides in last year’s marvelous LEAVE NO TRACE. So she knows how to command a scene and a movie. The 11-year-old Davis is remarkable. He is in just about every scene and you cannot take your eyes off of him. It’s an incredible performance. Subtly human, funny and heartfelt at the right moments.
The film takes a sad and dark turn near the end, but it is not shocking or out of left field. It is one of several times while watching where you may pull out a handkerchief to dab your eyes. Speaking of eyes… Waititi uses the eaves of homes in a town square where “traitors” are hanged to simulate eyes. Like the town is watching the wrong that is being done. Shoes are also big in the movie. Johansson has very unique footwear that Waititi trains his camera on several times because it will be important later. Jojo hasn’t learned to tie his own shoes and while it could be bit of an eye roll, you know he’s come to the end of a journey because he ties someone else’s shoes. It all worked on me.
History has taught us Hitler and his followers were foolish, evil men. So, every Nazi in is portrayed as a fool. Is Waititi commenting on the growth of Neo Nazis in 2019? Maybe. They are dangerous fools. But JOJO RABBIT is about more than that. It’s about friendship, growth and a young boy learning what life is really all about.