Some people are going to hate Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit like they haven’t hated anything since Life is Beautiful, and understandably some will argue Nazis are never funny under any circumstances, no matter what ridiculous figures they cut with their rites, their idiot prejudices, and their too-cool Hugo Boss uniforms.
But Mel Brooks, who was shot at by them at the Battle of the Bulge, was always certain Nazis were comedy gold. Even in these nervous times, can’t we accept Brooks’ judgment?
Jojo Rabbit is the diary of a Nazi wimpy kid, trying to fit in with the usual social absurdities—it’s just that the absurdities were heightened in the Reich. In a small village in 1944, young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is trying to be a good little Hitler Youth member. But he’s a thorough reject, drawing a portion of the scorn doled out by the Jugend’s scoutmaster, an invalided-out Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, great.) Jojo tents out at Jugend camp with his equal beta-male pal (Archie Yates), laying awake telling scary stories about Jews: “I hear they smell like brussel sprouts.” Recreations include a campfire of burning books—Jojo shows a little hint of reluctance, before he tosses in a volume and joins in with the fun.
Then comes a test of manhood: kill a bunny rabbit with his bare hands in front of his fellow Jugenders. He fails. Dejected, he gets a visit from his imaginary pal Der Fuhrer (Waititi in contact lenses and shaky mustache), who gives him fatherly advice. The boy has a speculative idea of Hitler, imagining him as a smoker, which he wasn’t, and a meat eater who dines on yummy stuffed roast unicorn heads. Adolph’s bucking-up advice to Jojo is to tell him to be the rabbit—faster than anyone. He races forth to be the vanguard in a race, snatches a potato-masher hand grenade from a bigger boy, and tosses it. It bounces off a tree and blows up in his face.
Now that his face is stitched up with scars, he’s an even bigger reject to all but his mom Rosie (a very relaxed and appealing Scarlett Johansson, with a buttery Marlene Dietrich accent). The convalescing Jojo learns is that there’s another woman on the premise. Mom is secretly Anne-Franking a friend of the family in the attic.
Young Elsa corners the boy with the Hitler Youth knife he wasn’t supposed to lose, but soon they become pals. For laughs, she schools simple Jojo on the Jews: do they hang upside like bats when they sleep? Can they read each others’ minds? As Elsa, Tomasin MacKenzie (Leave No Trace) is consistently unsentimental in the part.
Both Elsa and Rosie’s amused solicitude with this backward, fatherless kid is charming.
Moreover, they set up a border between the realm of the preposterous, macho Nazis and the far more mysterious and interesting world of women. As in John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, all the comfort and intelligence is on one side and all the pain and stupidity is on the other.
To add some yang to this yin, there is a female Nazi, Frauline Rahmi; Rebel Wilson plays this platinum blonde Brunhilda working with Klenzendorf. She birthed more than a dozen babies for the Reich (the bastards used to give out Mutterkreuz medals for that). Wilson suggests with her posture that she can’t sit comfortably after all that parturition.
This uproariously satirical version of a quite serious novel might be modeled on Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948) in the looming staircases, and the expressionism of the boy’s world collapsing around him. Like Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it’s certainly something you could take a smart older child to see.
Aspects are like Kurt Vonnegut, both Slaughterhouse-5 and Mother Night. Jojo Rabbit’s elegantly turned if sometimes episodic comedy is as Blaise Pascal described life: the last act is bloody, no matter how pleasant the play has been. There’s no comfortable way out of the tale—the rocky last 15 minutes will give Jojo Rabbit’s haters ammo. Still, maybe nothing was as funny about the Nazis as their scurrying, ignominious end.
Directed by Taika Waititi. Starring Roman Griffin Davis and Scarlett Johansson. PG-13. 108 minutes.