The Twitterverse should stow its faux outrage over the new black comedy JOJO RABBIT. Making fun of the Nazis is hardly outrageous or even unprecedented by show biz standards. STALAG 17 did it all the way back in 1953, as did HOGAN’S HEROES in 1965, THE PRODUCERS in 1967, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL in 1997, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS in 2009. Director/writer Taika Waititi may indeed push the envelope even further in his adaptation of Christine Leunens’ equally dark comic prose, going so far as to play Adolf Hitler himself as a prancing buffoon, but the hilarity of his Fuhrer-driven farce is not the surprising part. What is remarkable is how moving the story is in Waititi’s capable hands. The gifted filmmaker earns ginormous laughs throughout for sure, but his tugs at our heartstrings are the truly bold and audacious achievements that resonate the most.
From the very get-go, Waititi plays big with the laughs and the poignancy. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy and a moving drama, buttressed up against each other for maximum tension. Johanne “JoJo” Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) is a German 10-year-old trying to be a good fascist during the waning days of WWII. He idolizes Hitler so much and desires nothing more than to excel as a brown-shirted youth, that he imagines the Nazi head as his private coach, muse, and father figure.
Waititi is hilarious, playing Hitler as a big, gangly kid coaxing JoJo along, even though he’s cloddish and insecure. Despite his ambitions, JoJo fails to show his Nazi youth camp counselors his killer instinct when he chickens out when asked to kill a rabbit in cold blood. It’s the first truly serious moment of the film and it’s quite devastating. Waititi juxtaposes the farcical and the serious together like that, keeping us on the edge of our seats, never quite knowing if a scene will stay humorous, or veer into something more heartbreaking. For every laugh, there’s pathos, for every moment of silliness, there’s tragedy. And yet, it all holds together in tone as Waititi is showing the insanity of war, both the laughable and the horrible.
The serious underpinnings are readily apparent in all the scenes played in JoJo’s home. His mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) tries to raise her son as a single parent, and it’s a struggle. Her husband’s away at war, and JoJo is at that age where he starts to question everything and tend towards snideness. It doesn’t help matters that everyone is still reeling from losing teen daughter Inga to influenza.
Rosie is the man of the house for the time being and she keeps trying to shore up JoJo with positive advice, Cleverly, her clothing choices tend towards pants and men’s fedoras. She takes charge in every scene she’s in, without becoming tyrannical, yet JoJo doesn’t appreciate her nearly enough.
After JoJo gets injured at the Nazi youth camp, he’s forced to return home to convalesce. One day, while his mom is out on some sort of mysterious meeting that JoJo doesn’t understand, he investigates the strange creaking noises coming from upstairs in the house. Behind a wall, JoJo finds a secret room hiding Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), a teenage Jewish girl who was a classmate of Inga’s. Rosie has hidden her, and it makes JoJo angry to be deceived as such, but he agrees to shield Elsa if she performs a quid pro quo, revealing all of her “Jewish secrets” that JoJo wants to capture in his journal.
Of course, the two start to bond, and the ups and downs of their interactions are the core of the film. McKenzie wisely plays up Elsa’s bitterness, not letting JoJo get away with his ridiculous preconceptions about Jews. Even though JoJo still imagines Hitler filling his head with all sorts of lies about the Jewish people, JoJo starts to become educated in a way he didn’t expect. Rather than be trained as a good soldier, he starts to become a fair, open-minded, and compassionate German citizen.
Throughout the film, Waititi balances character comedy, like the banter between JoJo and Elsa, with the hard, ugly truths of the war. JoJo’s boss from the training camp, a closeted Nazi named Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) who can’t even be bothered to button up his uniform, may be a comically awful authority figure, but there’s sadness around his quippy edges. He keeps JoJo busy distributing flyers, but his bitterness over the regime and their slaughter is as obvious as his perennially unshaven face.
The director also cheekily casts Stephen Merchant as a Nazi official who drops in on JoJo and Elsa at home one day with a handful of other menacing party members. They interrogate the two, driving Elsa to masquerade as the deceased daughter of the house, and while Merchant gets a lot of laughs playing his overtly mannered fiend, the real threat of exposure makes the scene a stunning nail-biter.
Waititi does wonders with all of the production values, particularly the art direction and costumes, and all of his actors too. He reigns in Rebel Wilson as a Nazi secretary so she doesn’t step outside of her character and the story as she often does in her onscreen work. He gets a coy and smart performance from Johansson too, giving one of the year’s slyest supporting actress performances. But the true wonder here is how terrific Waititi excels with his younger cast. McKenzie continues to show that she’s one of the best talents of her generation with her nuanced performance, one of the year’s very best. Archie Yates plays JoJo’s best friend Yorkie, an even klutzier brown shirt than JoJo, and earns laughs every time he’s onscreen.
And in the title role of JoJo, one that requires him to be onscreen virtually the entire film, Davis is nothing short of a revelation. Few child performances have been as textured and expansive as his, and if the Academy Awards can get past his youth, he should be in the running for Best Actor this year. He never overacts, yet is droll, kind, somber, terrified – whatever the story needs. And he aces every second of it. This film is his and Waititi’s accomplishment.
When the tragedies start to build, it gets harder and harder to laugh, and that is what Waititi wants us to realize. Not for nothing does JoJo’s imaginary friend Hitler disappear from the movie for most of the third act. As the film moves towards its inevitable and moving conclusion, you may be shocked to realize how much you enjoyed and roared at such a tragic telling. Likely though, you’ll be even more amazed at how many lumps Waititi managed to place in your throat along the way.