Taika Waititi is probably the most frustrating writer/director in Hollywood right now. The guy isn’t a hack who has no idea what he is doing, with that said, the reason he is so frustrating is that his bread and butter which is his comedy is also the worst thing about his movies. Now that doesn’t mean that his humor isn’t funny, the problem is the humor undercuts his tone and takes away from the best elements of his films which is storytelling. This was the problem with Thor: Ragnarok and it really shows with his latest venture, Jojo Rabbit.
Jojo Rabbit is a black comedy set in Nazi Germany during World War II, a naive 10-year-old boy named Jojo idolizes Adolf Hitler, so much so that Hitler is his imaginary friend. Jojo lives with his mother while his father fights in the war. During the day, Jojo attends a Hitler Youth camp as he works to become a soldier for his homeland but doesn’t quite have what it takes. One day, as Jojo returns home early, he discovers that his mother has hidden a young Jewish girl in their attic who obviously doesn’t take kindly to Jojo’s love of Nazis. Jojo begins interrogating the girl while struggling to keep his mother’s secret from the government, it is then that Jojo begins to see the true colors of the man he idolizes.
Jojo Rabbit is tonally the most uneven movie in the last couple of years. The film is a black comedy, so that is the standard we have to judge it by. As the film progresses, however, you become more engaged with the dramatic elements of the story, which is a problem when your antagonists are straight out of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Now I understand the argument that if this film did not have a humorous element, that it would have been too dark and depressing, perhaps the film wouldn’t have been well received by critics. Well, that exposes another problem when people are lauding the film’s humor in the story where the jokes are not the film’s strength.
Jojo Rabbit focuses as our main character and his relationship with a Jewish stowaway named Elsa, this is the best dynamic in the entire film. Thomasin McKenzie, who was a stand out actress in last year’s Leave No Trace knocks it out of the park with another stellar performance in her young career. Scarlett Johansson has a short but satisfying role as Jojo’s mother. Johansson’s character is the nurturing mother and despite her limited screentime provides the humility needed to connect the characters with the audience. Roman Griffin Davis is solid enough as the childlike window into life in Nazi Germany. He isn’t the best child actor in the film, but he does enough to hold the story together. The actors have great chemistry and you sympathize with their story. There are stretches of this film that you forget that you are watching a comedy, and there is where the fun ends.
The humor just does not work for this film. First, you have the Nazis that are portrayed as Disney Channel villains, too stupid to be a threat to anyone which does not mesh with the story that is being told. Second, the character of Funny Hitler. While it is understood that Funny Adolf represents Jojo’s ignorance of Third Reich ideology and his pre-adolescent hero-worship, if you are going to do a Nazi comedy film then you have to go all-in on that idea which this film does not. Instead, the bit comes off as an escape for people who can’t handle the harsh realities of the story. If the bit was taken out of the film altogether, the dynamic takes a complete 180 and the comedy becomes unnecessary. Jojo Rabbit would become a straightforward drama with a few humorous moments, it would have been a better film, a film that is the complete opposite of what Taika Waititi was aiming for.
Waititi’s goal was to lampoon Nazis and mock the ideology of national socialism and hate. What you got is a film that has one foot in and one foot out of whatever the final vision was supposed to be, what you get is a half pregnant movie. If the goal was satire, it doesn’t work because the film is too serious to be funny and not funny enough to offset the drama.
Maybe it’s projection, but it feels like Taika Waititi has the obvious ability to be a great filmmaker, but doesn’t want to do joyless films so his crutch becomes his humor. This is fine if you want to make people smile, but you have to get better at balancing the themes so that it doesn’t take away from the bigger picture. There is a good film buried in Jojo Rabbit that is trapped in a bad narrative.