The titular character of Taika Waititi’s new film is perfectly suited to step out of its frames and waltz right into a Wes Anderson story without missing a beat.
How are we supposed to feel about young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), an undersized pipsqueak living in Nazi Germany who longs to be accepted as an equal among the Hitler Youth of his community? He’s whip-smart and decidedly hip in an anachronistic way — perfectly suited to step out of the frames of Taika Waititi’s film Jojo Rabbit and waltz right into a Wes Anderson story without missing a beat. It probably wouldn’t even be an issue that young Jojo has an otherwise problematic imaginary friend named Adolf (Waititi), who, despite being a bumbling and rather foolish figure, is still Adolf Hitler.
It seems highly unlikely that any of the other kids participating in the Hitler Youth camp believe in the Nazi philosophy to such an extent that they have their own version of Adolf prancing around in their heads. That, of course, is what makes Jojo such an adorable creation, perfectly embodied by Davis, who exudes so much child-actor charm that he finesses his way into our hearts as he bulldozes that fine line and crosses over into obnoxiousness. That’s exactly what Davis and Waititi are aiming for in this tango they’re performing.
As both screenwriter and director, Waititi knows that there’s only so much of this dynamic that we can take on the screen at any given time, so Davis shoulders the load, quite expertly, sharing time with a talented cast that seems to enjoy playing second, third and sometimes fourth fiddle to the wise youngster.
There’s Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a known and quite respected woman in the community. She’s a single mother raising her precocious child while hiding a number of secrets about herself and her family that triggers an ethical crisis for her son.
Like an abolitionist masquerading among plantation owners, Rosie has been hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic, right under the nose of the fanatical Jojo. When he finally stumbles upon Elsa, a somewhat dangerous series of exchanges begins.
Jojo attempts to overlay all of his outrageous stereotypes about Jews onto Elsa. His blind adherence to these silly notions is zealotry in the extreme, but it is easy to see and accept how a child can learn through exposure to overcome such faulty logic. Elsa is like the straightest straight woman opposite Jojo’s lunatic and quite manic thinking. With little more than a single word or a stern look, Elsa sets the tone for Jojo’s re-education.
She’s aided and abetted by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), the leader of Jojo’s Hitler Youth camp. Klenzendorf is not the usual smirky oddball that Rockwell plays. Rather, there’s a sense that this man is an older, wearier version of the kind of person who might have been like Jojo in his early days. Of everyone in the film, Klenzendorf is the only other character who might have dreamed up his own version of an imaginary friend like Adolf. But at this late stage in life, he’s seen for himself that Hitler and the Nazi plan is doomed to fail. He’s just too tired to get off the hamster wheel.
What’s most fascinating about Jojo Rabbit is the idea that it has to proclaim itself as an anti-hate satire in its marketing. Have we so lost touch with any understanding of comedy that something as broad and obvious as Waititi’s film needs extra disclaimers?
That’s not to say that there aren’t some subtle and incisive moments in the movie. I thoroughly appreciate how Waititi uses the pairing of characters with Jojo to spotlight not only where he is along his journey, but also where these other characters are along the spectrum, too.
And maybe, at the end of the day, that’s what audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival responded to as they made Jojo Rabbit this year’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award winner, setting it up for Academy Award expectations.
It has been an unusual year thus far, with both this selection and Joker snagging the Golden Lion (Best Film) at the Venice Film Festival. This could be the year for an oddball or two to breakout during the awards season.
And Jojo Rabbit just might have enough spring to leap ahead of the pack — and our limited comic sensibilities. (Opening Oct. 18) (PG-13) Grade: B+