The problem with ‘Jojo Rabbit’ isn’t that it’s offensive. It isn’t offensive, it’s just that it’s not especially good.
Taiki Waititi’s self-styled ‘anti-hate satire,’ as has been widely-publicised, casts the Polynesian-Jewish actor as the titular Jojo’s (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) imaginary best-friend Hitler. A grotesque, fumbling and fitting mockery, Waititi’s portrayal is more akin to Family Guy’s Fuhrer iteration than, say, any of Mel Brooks attempts; more on this later.
Scarlett Johansson fulfils the role of Jojo’s mother Rosie in Waititi’s second very deliberate piece of casting. The actress, in her portrayal evoking the imagery of the propagandistic Aryan myth, like Waititi is of course Jewish. The Ghost in the Shell star is well-known for her outspoken views on the appropriateness of her casting specifically yet not exclusively as regards criticisms that have been made relating her perceived racial background. Her decision to take up the part in this skewering of racism, conversely necessitating an actress who is anything but white playing a figure of archetypal whiteness who too expresses an antithesis to hatred herein, is no doubt a subtle riposte to many of her detractors.
Unfortunately, the film sparingly works on anything close to this level.
The exceptions are Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson as Jojo’s instructors, with the humour inherent in Wilson’s portrayal in particular underlining both the malevolence and absurdity of rampant extremism while not neglecting to emphasise it’s devastating effects. Repeated protestations that children sacrifice themselves for the cause while she remains at a distance strike the balance and searing real-life resonance that Jojo Rabbit pursues throughout, with the film otherwise often absent necessary grounding in real-life consequence.
Sure, there are allusions to the Shoah (Holocaust) for example, which is overwhelmingly related through the experience of Elsa, a young Jewish girl who is hiding in the walls of Jojo’s house, played by Leave No Trace star Thomasin McKenzie in yet another star-making turn. The film wants to relate a broader historical context, and certainly there are many examples of features, as early as the likes of Casablanca, that have done so absent graphic imagery and within the confines of a smaller narrative.
Conversely, Jojo Rabbit presumes an audience knowledge of the extent of the Nazi’s atrocities (irrespective of the victims’ backgrounds). No there is not a single film or text that can adequately account for these events yet many, from Schindler’s List to varied adaptations of Anne Frank’s story to X-Men have found ways to elaborate on, significantly, the scale of events and the breadth of their impact.
Audiences are not ill-informed nor should such a presumption be made; viewers will likely have varying understandings of the historical events surrounding Jojo Rabbit. Yet to the extent that the film either seeks to inform on the breadth of hate’s consequence and relative to this underline how the horrific mentalities depicted throughout bear broader consequence through crucial reference to wider historical context, it falls short.
Naysayers of such a view will likely bring up Brooks’ deservedly beloved classic and still raucous hallmark of far-right lampooning The Producers, among this author’s very favourite films, and musicals; excepting of course the terrible 2005 adaptation. Yet there’s a crucial distinction to be drawn here. Brooks, statedly, will gleefully mock the Nazis but fell short of conveying the Shoah as the basis for any comedy; famously criticising Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
This author does not share the view that anything should necessarily be off limits for creatives and that there can be catharsis (if managed effectively and as seen in respects of Waititi’s latest) in sourcing humour in even the most dire of circumstances. Benigni, in what was the third and weakest of three acts, nonetheless accounted for a necessarily reckonable extent of the scale of his subject, a matter significantly confined to being explored this time around through McKenzie’s character.
If you’re going to take the piss out of Nazis that’s great and you’ve got a lot to work with, you just have to be funny and to resonate not neglect to ground or effectively relate the humour to its less than fictional ramifications, something for instance the very overrated ‘Allo ‘Allo! didn’t always muster. Waititi achieves such in some of the jumbled approaches to comedy, yet most ably manages same in the asides divorced from typical slapstick humour which could just as well have been transplanted to many a more dramatic picture.
If you’re going to broach the Shoah with comedy however, there’s a necessity to relate and ground the breadth of it’s reach and consequence to extents feasible in film if simply for the humour to be effective and to resonate for any regardless of their level of knowledge of the occurrences or lack thereof; with Jojo Rabbit we don’t quite get there.
On the matter of audiences ‘getting it,’ much of the dialogue between Elsa and Jojo is replete with ‘gotcha’ moments and platitudes; in their simplicity undermining what could have been more palpable, realistic encounters for those watching and intended by the creators to be either affirmed or swayed in their views. The arc of Rockwell’s character and the most interesting herein, broadly comparable to Jojo’s as he too begins to see the faults in the Nazis’ extremism, is comparably better handled. With both characters quite literally scarred and consequentially soon rejected by their contemporaries, the subplot centring on Rockwell’s Klenzendorf, too highlighting the persecution suffered by disabled and queer persons at the hands of the Third Reich, deploys an illiteral, viscerally impacting subtleness notably absent from less effective stretches.
To be clear, this author is not of the view that any filmmaker has a responsibility to educate, however serious the subject, rather than entertain. It’s just that you need to contextualise some subjects if their skewering is to resonate, regardless of how clued-in your audience might be, and imparting none of this is helped if you too blatantly spell out your point at various junctures.
Now; Waititi’s Hitler. Littered throughout, there’s a grand total of two scenes where it’s effective. The first; largely for its then novelty, and the last, for trying something different and uniquely dark. The rest of the appearances wreak of sketch comedy (the concept itself being ripe for a briefer run) stretched unnecessarily over two hours ala What We Do in the Shadows. Waititi’s performance isn’t bad, it’s simply that after the initial impact it becomes (with the exception of the final scene) one-note and non-essential, much like Roman Griffin Davis’ own turn which, while serviceable, is overshadowed by a conveyer belt of performers running rings around him.
Foremost among them is the very underrated Johansson, stealing the film in its easily best scene involving a brutish impersonation of an off-screen figure. A narrow second-best and likewise impacting sequence too involves Johansson, and a pair of shoes.
It is these moments, as good as they are, which underline the main problem above and beyond all else with Jojo Rabbit in that there are three different tones running interchangeably within. There’s Rockwell and Wilson doing their shticks (alongside a likewise excellent Stephen Merchant as a gangly gestapo), Waititi who is operating at a wholly different comic register and everything else which over and above comedy predominantly pursues drama.
Some of these dramatic moments are the film’s very best and could have been resplendent in many a more tonally-orientated picture irrespective of the genre(s) pursued, yet falter amidst refrains to varied comic tonalities which themselves don’t always land. For all the film’s faults there is regardless a simple and undeniable joy in seeing Nazis so belittled and moreover at the behest of those in a sustained effort of self-actualisation and catharsis to which many a viewer will relate.
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing the subjects this film does and those times one does get it wrong it doesn’t mean the flick is necessarily offensive nor is this one, but don’t expect everyone to queue up.
‘Jojo Rabbit,’ which premiered at the Jewish International Film Festival, is in cinemas from Boxing Day and screens as part of Screenwave on January 9, 2020, at Mov’ In Bed Sydney on January 30, 2020 and Mov’ In Bed Melbourne on February 6, 2020, at Moonlight Cinema in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth on January 30, at Sydney Openair Cinemas on January 31, 2020 and February 7, 2020, Canberra Openair Cinema on February 2 and 11, 2020 and Westpac OpenAir Cinema on February 4, 10 & 19, 2020