FILM REVIEW – JOJO RABBIT. With Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell. Written and directed by Taika Waititi. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, some disturbing images, violence and language. 108 minutes.
Writer-director Taika Waititi’s asinine JOJO RABBIT begins with footage from “Triumph Of The Will” recut to an early German-language Beatles recording of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The joke here – which I keep seeing praised in print by people who really should know better – is equating Hitler’s rise to power with Beatlemania, a bunch of screaming, empty-headed teens losing their mind over the latest fad. Like most attempted insights in this deeply obnoxious movie, it’s a comparison that falls apart if you spend more than five minutes thinking about it. But then this picture has been designed in such a way to circumvent thought, instead congratulating the audience for catching its references and inviting them in turn to admire the filmmaker for his “daring” tweaks of taboos, wrapping it all up in a warm bath of sticky sentiment to send you home with a smile. I really hated this movie.
It’s Berlin in the waning days of WWII, and 10-year-old Jojo (played by cuddly Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to be a Nazi. Raised by his single mother (Scarlett Johansson), he ends up housebound after a grenade accident at his Hilter Youth camp, a schticky sort of Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kristallnacht” presided over by a closeted SS-washout (Sam Rockwell). All the adults here seem to realize that the war is just about over and it’s not going to end their way, but they nonetheless go through the motions of Nazi-ism – which they all admittedly find pretty silly – in a half-assed fashion for the sake of the kids, who really want to believe in the Reich like it was Santa Claus or something.
Young Jojo even confides in an imaginary friend who happens to be Adolf Hitler (played by the director in a grating, loose-limbed performance that’s like being trapped in an elevator with an improv comic) and the two happily frolic through their anti-Semitic “Calvin and Hobbes” while the rest of us wonder why any of Waititi’s loved ones didn’t intervene tell him that this was all a really gross idea. Billed as “an anti-hate satire,” the movie intends to skewer Nazi-ism for its stupidity, adopting the fanciful tone of a children’s fairy tale to present these Aryan adventures as exercises in arrested development. It’s all a phase – like Beatlemania, I guess – that Jojo is soon going to grow out of. (Waititi has apparently forgotten that people still really like The Beatles. Nazis, too.)
The plot thickens when the boy discovers that mom has stashed a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie of the excellent “Leave No Trace”) in the cupboard, and how much do you want to bet that much to his imaginary friend’s frustrations, Jojo’s gonna learn to move past his prejudices after getting to know her? For anyone who ever wanted to see the Anne Frank story re-done as a cutesy tween romance with a happy ending, I’ve got good news.
I got even angrier as the movie went along, recoiling at Waititi’s twee production design and winking, anachronistic dialogue. It made me start thinking about the difference is between a movie told from a child’s POV with an adult’s perspective and a film that treats its audience like children. There’s a long tradition of movies seeing war through the eyes of a child – heck, John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” even came out the same damn year – while Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” depicted the rise of fascism in Italy as an extended adolescence, authoritarianism as a fart-filled wank.
None of those films pissed me off like “Jojo Rabbit” because they didn’t pull their punches the way Waititi does. Late in the running time, Jojo discovers that something horrible has happened, but the movie doesn’t allow us to see it. We’re kept safe from any grisly images, to the point where Jojo’s allegedly “disfiguring” grenade accident leaves just a couple of minor scratches on his adorable face. There’s a running gag about a kid from camp who keeps getting blown up in battles and miraculously reappearing, joking to the camera about how apparently he’s very difficult to kill. A dead child would derail all the upbeat, feel-good whimsy, and who wants that to happen in a movie about the Holocaust?
“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re not one of them,” his cool new Jewish girlfriend tells him before they dance in the street to a David Bowie song. (You can probably guess which one.) In fact, deep down none of these Nazis are all that bad, with Rockwell heroically even stepping in to save Jojo’s life near the climax. The point, I think, is that we’ve all gotta grow up and get past these silly differences, which strikes me as a dangerously Pollyanna-ish attitude considering what a comeback actual real-life Nazis have been making lately. But it’s emblematic of the movie’s stunted worldview, snickering in-jokes, and deliberate distance from anything resembling reality. Waititi tells us that people are truly good at heart in a movie where Anne Frank lives at the end. This is a deeply, distressingly insulated picture – the Funko Pop collector’s edition of “Shoah.”•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.