THREE STARS Jojo is super-excited about a weekend for Nazi youth and takes his best (imaginary) friend, Adolf.
Roman Griffen Davis, Taika Waitit
PERIOD COMEDY #JOJORABBIT
Hitler comedies are tricky. Thus it takes a particular kind of chutzpah to turn history’s greatest monster into a thing of fun. It worked for Charlie Chaplin (THE GREAT DICTATOR) and Mel Brooks (THE PRODUCERS), and most of the time it works for Taika Waititi (THOR: RAGNAROK). The New Zealand export has form with offbeat, having cut his teeth on the likes of BOY and HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. But tipping Hitler on his arse demands a whole new level of crazy.
So as the sun begins to set on the Third Reich, deliriously happy ten year old Jojo is Germany’s most excited child. This particular Nazi youth is bound for a weekend of indoctrination led by the hapless Captain Klenzendorf (a scene-stealing Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). With his best imaginary friend Adolf (a typically kooky Waititi) along for the ride, he’ll learn how to throw grenades and how to spot a Jew (easily he’s told, they have horns).
Inspired by Christine Leunens’ darkly comedic novel, this is something of a personal project for the half-Maori, half-Jewish director. Unsurprisingly for such an off-the-wall concept helmed by an acclaimed off-the-wall director, it took eight long years to get a green light (the success of RAGNAROK surely helped). Thus JOJO lands peppered with Waititi’s trademark, somewhat unclassifiable sense of the absurd. For instance, this Hitler dines on unicorn tartare and finds the inevitable discovery that JoJo’s mother is hiding a Jew ‘intense’.
While the high-spirited preposterousness of it all is a jolly wheeze to begin with (who doesn’t enjoy taking the piss out of tyrants?), once the film changes gears Waititi has trouble finding the right tonal shift between surreal and sentimental. War’s funny, until it’s not. Then we’re left uncertain how we’re meant to react - is Rockwell’s flamboyance played for laughs or pity, or both? Is he a good Nazi because he saves Jojo? Is there such a thing as good Nazi? The questions are a distraction which reveal just how fine the line is on this high-wire act. Some will fall, others will make it across with their heart in their hands.
Many more will be left wondering what it was all about. Too light for great satire, too funny for drama, JOJO RABBIT is ultimately a big hug for a young boy. Noble, admirable even, though not, in the end, the stuff of great cinema. It’s too cute, too warm and perhaps too funny for that.