An anti-hate satire. That is the description that Fox Searchlight and Taika Waititi have decided to give to the 2019 Best Picture nominee Jojo Rabbit, and the reason Jojo Rabbit doesn’t work. Of all the politically charged, powerful films of the year, the academy has decided to back Taika Waititi in his stance against hate and Naziism, begging the question: is there a more lazy, commonly accepted political stance than being “anti-hate”? Jojo Rabbit finds itself backed into a corner because it’s alleged satire amounts to a collection of Hitler jokes and anti-semeitc babble that feels more fit for youtube sketch comedy than in a feature film. By framing itself as a valid critique of the Nazi party and blind fanaticism, Jojo Rabbit represents Taika Waititi’s bid for seriousness from a critical mass. But, to make that leap, it would be helpful if Waititi’s script contained more biting commentary than how funny Hitler’s mustache is or how antisemetic Nazis are.
From Writer-Director Taika Waititi comes Jojo Rabbit which follows the exploits of Nazi youth Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who’s life is turned upside down when he discover his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johanson), has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in their attic. Jojo, accompanied by his imaginary friend Adolph Hitler (Taika Waititi), must confront his prejudices and fears when his beliefs come into question as World War 2 draws to a close. Told from Jojo’s perspective, Jojo Rabbit has a surprising whimsical feel, as a coming of age story, which just so happens to take place in the Third Reich.
As a result of Jojo’s youth and inexperience, the juvenile nature of the film’s satire is often written off as an artistic choice, but such watered down comedic impotence feels hard to explain away. None of this is to say Jojo Rabbit is terrible; in its more dramatic moments, the film somewhat works, on the quality of exciting young performers and mature character actors. But for Jojo Rabbit to succeed, the comedy and drama elements must be working in complete harmony, complementing each other at every turn. Instead, what we are left with are broken, obvious, weak jokes demeaning actual dramatic tension.
With all of that said, the cast is, without a doubt, talented. Roman Griffin Davis delivers an impressive debut performance as Jojo, leaning into his character’s fanaticism as a cover for his fears and insecurities. Davis is in almost every single scene of Jojo Rabbit, carrying most of the film’s dramatic burden. In his scenes with Johanson in particular, the duo tap into a mother-son dynamic that easily serves as Jojo Rabbit’s best features. Through their debates over nationalism and youth, Jojo Rabbit reaches a level of dramatic quality that the rest of the film can’t match.
Jojo Rabbit’s best breakout young performer, however, is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa. In her role as Elsa, McKenzie must create a sense of maturity and youth, coupled with moments of intimidation and fear. McKenzie delicately executes the combination with skills beyond her years, nailing her opportunity to establish herself as a dramatic actress. Starring in Edgar Wright’s upcoming film Last Night In Soho, McKenzie should have a bright future ahead as she looks to establish herself as a dramatic force.
But all of these positives are completely undermined by Jojo Rabbit’s need to congratulate itself on its utter hilarity that doesn’t exist. As Hitler, Waititi has a strange vision of how to lampoon the one of the most vile figures in modern world history: by playing him as a charming buffoon with a penchant for self congratulation. Jojo Rabbit’s comedic faults, however, stretch far beyond Waititi’s performance, whether it be Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen portraying closeted gay Nazi officers, Rebel Wilson as a fanatical adherent to the Nazi cause or Stephen Merchant as a friendly Gestapo captain. Each of these characters are obvious iterations of the same joke which appears to just be: “Nazis. Hilarious.”
The only comedic element of Jojo Rabbit which succeeds is actually another child actor, Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend, Yorki. Yates is able to slide by the film’s usually incapable critiques of Naziism through sheer charisma and chemistry with Davis. Yates’s success versus that of his older comically inclined peers also relies on Waititi’s natural ability to work with child actors and create effective performances.
But, for the sake of honesty, Jojo Rabbit is actually a difficult film to review, mainly because of all of the political implications attached. By critiquing something which literally positions itself as “anti-hate”, does a negative opinion somehow make me “pro-hate”? By disliking Waititi’s childish take on Naziism, am I really just playing into the trolling nature of the performance, or opening myself to the “childish perspective” comeback that Jojo Rabbit fans are equipped with?
In this way Jojo Rabbit has masterfully positioned itself against valid criticism. If you attack Waititi for his buffoonish performance as Hitler or complain about Jojo Rabbit’s soft, overly broad attempts at comedy, then the film’s defenders have free reign to criticize you for PC interpretations of artistic freedom or the youth of the film’s protagonist. I am of the belief that if we are to call something satire, it might be artistically viable to create something original, smart, and biting rather than just throwing out middle school quality comedic interpretations of difficult subjects. Maybe our films about somber issues should be somber or they run the risk of lazy oversimplification and demeaning the plights of others. But that is where film discourse has fallen, where disliking a film based on its own merit has to be misconstrued by the film’s fans as an indication of your political beliefs.
Sure, Jojo Rabbit has cute kids and Hitler making funny faces, but that’s not satire. It’s just stupid.