I went into a screening of Taiki Waititi's Jojo Rabbit uncertain what to expect. This tale of an 11-year-old German boy talking to imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities such as hangings in a public square and swallowing sweetened Third Reich dogma sounded a little hard to take, especially for this American of Jewish descent.
However, I've been a fan of Waititi's other coming-of-age stories, from his little-seen Boy in 2010 and his humane and adorable Hunt for the Wilderpeople six years later. Waittiti has a way especially with children, seeing the world through their uncritical eyes while not being patronizing. And in his deadpan style, his films are really funny, too.
So I went into this movie with open eyes expecting either a sly political satire or a wondrous, transformative yarn of a boy finding his way to salvation from horrible times.
I came out of the movie with neither. I'm still not certain what I should have expected of Jojo Rabbit. But, despite the film's flaws and its seeming lack of a coherent vision. I did laugh at times. And well up a bit near the end. And kick myself afterward for feeling this way.
The first third of the movie put me in a strange place. There was the pre-teen German boy Jojo Betzler (played with zeal by newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) talking to Waititi's edgily funny Hitler as if he was a surrogate father and attending a camp for little Nazi kids who compete in physical fitness challenges and bully the weak Jojo.
There was Sam Rockwell playing an over-the-top camp director who is a cross between Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes and your eccentric uncle. And Rebel Wilson as his loopy assistant who seemed to have walked in from another movie, Pitch Perfect ladled with sauerkraut. Amid all this gaiety (and the subtle gayness of Rockwell's fussy character), there is the forced killing of a rabbit to prove manliness and Jojo's face being disfigured from an errant hand grenade.
Having fun yet? At first, I thought this was a strange dream sequence and that we'd wake up in modern day. But no.
The movie's early jokiness is flecked with some commentary. Waititi deftly counterposes scenes of the Beatles arriving to hysterical crowds in America with Deutschland's infatuation with Hitler. Jojo' mother, played by Scarlett Johansson (having a great year at the movies), grounds the film through her discomfort with Jojo's rabid Nazi pursuits and her closet activities helping the Allies. She takes care of young Jojo and shows him love that otherwise would only come from fake Hitler and dangerous goofs such as Rockwell.
I was confused, as the movie did not do either broad comedy or pathos very well. Its vision of kids playing with Nazism seemed as harmless as a Wes Anderson comedy, while it avoided deeper, and more depressing, reminders of the horrors of the Reich. I understand Waititi's point of view, that the movie is mostly seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old kid, but some context and edge would have helped give it more energy.
At that point, the movie takes another turn, introducing a teenage Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) that Johansson keeps secreted in a hidden closet. She is found by Jojo, who had never met a Jew and doesn't know what to think. McKenzie, so great in Leave No Trace (stop reading and stream it now if you haven't already) has little to do but act as Jojo's trigger to his maturity and his breaking away from pseudo-Hitler.
Waititi plays the Nazi dictator well, frolicking with Jojo through the woods and nudging him to say Heil Hitler as if he meant it with all his heart. He has his dark side, though, growing angrier with Jojo for not turning the Jewish girl in to the Gestapo.
A great scene emerges where the Gestapo, possibly tipped off to Johansson's radicalism, marches into Jojo's flat and finds the girl there. They are both patronizing to young Jojo and menacing, opening desk drawers and finding Jojo's scribblings on what a Jew looks like -- with devil horns and serpent tails -- before running into McKenzie's Elsa. Jojo must explain that she is his sister, who actually is dead. In a bit of movie deus ex machina, his late sister looks enough like Elsa to fool the inspectors. But a sense of menace finally emerges in the scene, unlike in much of the rest of the film.
The issue in this film is not its use of Hitler and Rockwell's character as funny Nazis, charming but a bit off-kilter. Hitler was indeed charismatic, and Rockwell provides enough levity and humanity to leaven the movie. The issue is not in its movie-conjured drama, as the war is near its end and the Nazis are getting more and more desperate.
It is the fact that the movie is not certain what it should be. While the ending is obvious and freeing to both Elsa and Jojo, it is also not earned because of the lack of gravitas before it. That turns it a bit cloying, even when you are rooting for the characters and glad for their freedom. They dance at the end.
But if it is happy, then the fate of Johansson's character is a grim reminder that war's end is not a lark for everyone. Waititi's take on her demise is needed, but so is a greater sense of danger for Jojo and others, of a feeling that war is actually hell. The movie cannot seem to decide whether to be a feel-good coming-of-age tale or one more serious and battle-scarred. It cannot do both well.
Even so, there is dancing at the end. Freedom had arrived at a cost. But what could have been a great movie becomes one slightly better than adequate. Jojo may leave unscathed after the war. I left the theater liking what I saw but wanting something that would scathe and burn a bit more.