Not so much the banality of evil as of taking pot-shots at easy targets, Taika Waititi’s typically insubstantial, broad-brush, sketch-comedy approach isn’t the best of fits for the formulation of this self-styled “anti-hate satire”. The issue isn’t so much that it’s inappropriate or insensitive to broach material of Nazi persecution of the Jews comedically as that the manner in which it has been done here is so obvious as to be redundant. Waititi said his inspiration for making the movie was partly the statistics on those Americans who had never heard of Auschwitz; Jojo Rabbit is as cack-handed a way of going about informing them as Life is Beautiful.
The result of his impulse to express himself with explicit commentary is a muddle of tonal awkwardness and narrative lethargy. The Harvey-esque set-up, of ten-year-old Johannes/Jojo (Roman Griffin Davies), a budding young Nazi with an imaginary Hitler friend (played by Waititi himself, mugging shamelessly for the Fatherland) has a seed of potential, one overlaid onto Chrisine Leunens’ 2008 novel Caging Skies, such that Jojo discovers Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic (actually hidden there by his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson).
But humour-wise, Jojo Rabbit is a one-joke premise played to its bluntest and least inventive potential, crystallised by Jojo’s payoff line “Fuck off, Hitler” as he boots his former pal out of a window. We all know Nazis are fuckers, and idiots, beholden to ridiculous, offensive and chilling ideas, which makes satirising them really easy, commendable and a goldmine of mirth, right? No, it makes satirising them largely tedious, predictable and puerile, if attacked from the same lazy starting point. It’s not really satire if it’s glaring and indisputable.
Much of the first hour of Jojo Rabbit is a stir and repeat of the whacky/stupid antics of its Hitler Youth, along with Jojo having the same circular conversation with Elsa about Nazis’ demonising of Jews (making a joke out of which gets stale the fourth or fifth time, let alone the fourteenth or fifteenth).
Korr is very good, but has very little to work with as she’s simply there to reflect/deflect Jojo’s ignorance and prejudice. Davis has too much placed on his shoulders. He lacks the timing to deliver Waititi’s gags – all of which are in the same self-satisfied style, irrespective of the character delivering them – and the range to make the emotional moments land (notably, when he finds his mother’s hanging corpse, Waititi treats the scene largely as a tableau – his stylistic fall-back – rather than relying on Davis’ performance).
Admittedly, going into a movie with preconceived notions can lead to one looking to confirm them, and I had my doubts on both the premise of Jojo Rabbit and the general wave of adulation that has buoyed Waititi for a few years now. I’ve found his recent films watchable but also infused by an off-putting air of smugness that comes from an unchecked authorial voice, one prone to smothering the material (so witness the demise of Steven Moffat).
In Jojo Rabbit, that reaches the stage of actually trying the patience, but what surprised me most was how inert large portions of the movie are. Waititi has the mantra of his message preceding him, yet he doesn’t really know what he’s doing with the material beyond waving that flag and a smattering of very elementary gags (there’s even a “one ball” one). He certainly fails to create any resonance, aside perhaps from the aforementioned moment of Jojo finding his mother’s body.
Other sequences are painfully misjudged, such as Rosie acting out her husband’s return (Johansson’s limitations as a performer have never been more evident). Waititi doesn’t so much walk a line between sentiment and slapstick as dive into both with careless abandon, so both are equally ill-judged and bereft of effectiveness.
As such, I was surprised, briefly, when Jojo Rabbit suddenly clicked in and seemed fully engaged during the sequence where Stephen Merchant’s Gestapo agent Deertz comes to inspect Jojo’s house, and Elsa makes the dangerous move of posing as Jojo’s dead sister. Suddenly, the material exhibits purpose and energy, with danger and stakes, and even the comedy clicks into a sure rhythm (the “Heil Hitler” exchanges). There’s even some nuance, courtesy of Sam Rockwell’s one-eyed army officer, evidently aware of the subterfuge being enacted.
But just as quickly, it’s gone again. It’s emblematic of Waititi’s facile approach that the “in” to Rockwell being sympathetic is that he’s secretly gay and therefore has an innate empathy for the persecuted (along with a love of flamboyant fashions and makeup). And that the initially promising soundtrack choices – the use of The Beatles’ German version of I Wanna Hold your Hand – culminate in the most overused of all anthems, Heroes, mimed by now liberated Jojo and Elsa. It’s the icing on a cake of sickly-sweet glibness.
Waititi has little apparent facility for writing or eliciting strong character work – as with the horrors of the Nazi ethos, if he keeps things broad and sufficiently at a distance, he and we can remain broadly, with the emphasis on broadly, comfortable and unchallenged – and his stylistic approach – sub-Wes Anderson tableaus and occasional use of “impactful” and usually-musically-accompanied slow motion – serve to emphasise just how one-dimensional he is as a director.
The Nazi “satire” in Jojo Rabbit is about as sharp as your average adolescent activist’s nascent political insights, and the character work noticeably no more advanced. There are plenty of strong satires of the Nazis out there, from Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, or even the Brooks-starring To Be or Not to Be. Jojo Rabbit is a long way from their territory, unfortunately.