Jojo Rabbit is a tonal minefield. Taking place during the waning months of World War II and featuring a 10-year-old boy’s imaginary friend version of Hitler (played by writer-director Taika Waititi), the film is an anti-hate dramedy with plenty of Third Reich hate being tossed around as jokes of absurdity.
The 10-year-old gives the film its perspective. Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) stands in front of the mirror pumping himself up for the Hitler Youth camp he is leaving for. Imaginary Hitler helps him out, coaching him on his “Heil” salute. At camp, a boozy, one-eyed general (Sam Rockwell) and the other kids give him grief. He is bullied and ridiculed. His response is to prove everyone wrong by throwing a grenade, which let’s just say is a tactic which blows up in his face.
The remainder of the film takes place back in Jojo’s German neighborhood and concerns an exposure to the things which he has been told to mindlessly hate, an exposure that threatens (to imaginary Hitler’s chagrin) to rehabilitate his hateful mind.
Let’s address the film’s tone. A.A. Dowd (who gave the film a C+ out of TIFF) claims that “strip away the jokes, and Jojo Rabbit is largely indistinguishable from the kind of middlebrow Holocaust tear-jerkers that used to routinely win the Foreign Language Oscar.” There is a sense where the jokes and the melodrama do not mix. The moments of uplift in Jojo’s journey could be viewed as tender or sappy. The jokes can be funny (Waititi’s fantasy Hitler is a continual well of laughs, albeit in a role that serves an inconsequential function in the plot), and there are multiple points that ask for a swell of emotion.
Rarely do the two goals—busting guts and tugging heartstrings—meet in the middle. And the experiment of picturing the film without the jokes does lead to a few stark scenes reading too cutesy and Wes Andersonian for the subject matter. Of course, it is a fallacy to view the film without the jokes, which are an integral part in pulling the audience into Jojo’s arc. The comedy helps sell the anti-hate message and the plea for humanity that Waititi is making. But the absurdist depiction of the Third Reich as comprised of incompetent buffoons acts to lessen the impact of that humanizing plot. The two threads feel like they are of two different movies.
Jojo’s character arc may ring sweet and heartwarming to viewers. The absurd approach may be uproariously funny to viewers. But there is nevertheless the feeling that the two don’t mix, and neither are as profound and rare as the film presents them. All the same, the heartwarming message is not lost on me; it resonates to a degree where the ending is emotionally satisfying. And the comedy shines through in enough moments. It just lacks the unification of tone, a hurdle that if cleared could have propelled Jojo Rabbit into the more rarefied realm of satire that it is shooting for.
Jojo Rabbit: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)