Billing itself “An Antihate Satire,” Taika Waititi’s latest film “Jojo Rabbit” is an adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel “Caging Skies,” with a screenplay by Waititi himself. He also stars in it, playing the imaginary friend (who happens to be Adolf Hitler) of the eponymous wannabe-Hitler Youth. Waititi is deservedly enjoying a streak that has seen his excellent comedic chops becoming available to more and more audiences, from 2014’s “What We Do in the Shadows” (the second season of the also excellent FX TV version is about to start airing), 2016’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” and now “Jojo Rabbit” (with some TV episodes for “Shadows” and “The Mandalorian” in between). And a week ago “Jojo Rabbit” scored six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (for Scarlett Johansson). Not too shabby.
“Jojo Rabbit” concerns a 10-year-old German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) at the tail-end of World War II. Unknown to him, the Nazis are about to lose the war, and his idol führer is soon to blow his brains out. Also unknown to him: the Nazis are the bad guys. An accident derails his plan to become a soldier for the Fatherland, and he is left to recuperate at home and volunteer at the local Nazi office when he is able. Meanwhile he makes a shocking discovery at home and consults with his imaginary friend (the aformentioned Hitler).
“Jojo” shows how bigots aren’t born, they’re made. Swept up in the propaganda and rhetoric all around him, Jojo doesn’t even realize how deeply his own mother’s resentment toward the movement really runs. His father’s off fighting, and the family is still grieving the loss of his older sister. Jojo wants to be a patriot, but cannot bring himself to do the acts of violence and cruelty demanded of him.
With such a bleak background, Waititi focuses on the perspective of the young Jojo, lighting the film with a bright palette. There are a lot of great visual gags, some choice comedic dialogue, inspired performances (Waititi, Johansson and Merchant are standouts; the children are all terribly charming). Waititi is able to depict moments of beauty in a war-torn country, as when Jojo enjoys a day with his mother, going about town. The comedy in the midst of the horrors of war can be jarring and induce some tonal whiplash, but it’s all intentional, for better or worse. We laud “Fleabag” for going from hilarity to sadness at the drop of a line, and Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful” mined somewhat similar territory back in 1997. If you are familiar with Waititi’s oeuvre and like it, then this should work for you. Most of the time it works gangbusters, because let’s face it: the man is hilarious.
Occasionally, though, the comedy can rankle. Comedy and drama have always been bedfellows (see James L. Brooks), but sometimes the comedy arises not from a natural absurdity of situation but a forced line or moment. Black comedy has been around for decades but perhaps it would be easier to laugh at a further remove; if fascism and Nazism were not making a comeback in world politics.
It is also perhaps a too easily dismissive of the Nazis as kooky idiots, rarely delving into the nasty core of their misguided hatred. It lets some of them off the hook, shall we say; too easily brainwashed. An able and very game supporting cast that includes Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Alfie Allen get to be funny but can sometimes lead to confusion: are they bad or just dolts? The characterization of Rockwell and Allen in particular get some weird notes.
In this way “Jojo Rabbit” is very much a Taika Waititi project, to a fault. Every now and then it gets the better of him and the careful balance between comedy and drama tips. But when it works (and 90 percent of the time, it does), it dances.
“Jojo Rabbit” is exclusively showing at Ayala Cinemas.