Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit ★★★★½

It seems like a staggering amount of the discussion surrounding this movie is less about what actually occurs in the film itself and more about what each critic thinks the tone of a Hitler Youth comedy should be. Some decry it as too light or funny for such “heavy“ subject matter. Others complain that it’s not a searing enough indictment of fascist ideology. If you want to talk about how it should be done, make a movie yourself. I’d rather talk about what’s actually on the screen and what’s here is damn brilliant.

So the controversial elevator pitch for this one is pretty simple: a bullied member of the Hitler Youth has, um, Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend in the late World War II period. Naturally, it is the sort of thing that courts controversy. Commonly, Taika Waititi sets his films through the worldview of children. So it is the case here.  It’s that window of the perspectives of a 10 year old boy, and to a lesser extent a 17 year old girl, that should give necessary context to what Waititi is doing here tonally. His interest is not in how the 2019 viewer should see 1945 Germany, but rather the view of a fundamentally decent 10 year old boy. That perspective, naturally, has applicability to 2019, but everything need not be framed in a lens of 2019 sentiment. Accordingly, feelings are amplified. Small gestures feel enormous. Tiny moments feel momentous. Characters take on a more heightened features than they ever could in a more “realistic” film. That child’s perspective is so key to everything he achieves here. 

And what casting by Waititi in those children. Thomason McKenzie has already proven her chops as the high point of the flawed but interesting Leave No Trace. Here, in a big sister role of a sort, she remarkably balances the toll of the war, a bemused sense of good-hearted humor and some well earned indignation. It’s great work. The entire film hinges on young Roman Griffin Davis. He is a truly stupendous find. Blessed with incredibly expressive eyes and a fine sense of comedic timing, Davis perfectly threads the needle of what is an incredibly difficult performance for someone so young. The supporting cast is tremendous across the board, even those with only a few lines like Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson. Sam Rockwell is great per his norm. Special note should go to young Archie Yates as the cutest, most rotund member of the HJ. He too is blessed with immense comedic talent. Stephen Merchant manages to balance playing the film’s most purely evil character and perhaps its broadest most Monty Python-esque moments. He’s both menacing and hilarious as if plucked from the pure evil version of Office Space. But most remarkable of all is the work by Scarlett Johansson. Allowed to showcase more humanity and emotion than most of her roles allow, she gives a deeply moving performance. While she doesn’t have to carry many of the film’s comedic beats, she carries most of its heart. She’s more than up to the task. It’s some of her best work and some of the very best work of the year.

Waititi’s own work as Hitler is a masterclass in comedic delivery. I hesitate to say too much about the work, but suffice to say he sets the tone for how well this thing works. It’s easily one of the funniest performances of the year.

Worth noting that the film’s production values are stupendous. The cinematography is by Mihai Malaimare of The Master fame; needless to say it is excellent. The score from Michael Giacchino (Up) is wonderful and memorable. The song choices, especially an early film German language Beatles song, are pure Waititi and perfect for the material.

At the end of the day, if you’re offended by the concept this is not going to work for you. If you’re willing to embrace that humanity, goodness, and humor can be found in even the most difficult circumstances then you’ll love this. To my eye Jojo Rabbit is one of 2019’s funniest, strangest, and most touching films.

2019: First to Worst

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