Taika Waititi wears his heart on his sleeve. That’s evident from all four of his sad, quirky, New Zealand-based cinematic adventures, not including his plummet into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and absolutely including What We Do in the Shadows, a film that somehow manages to find the warmth and humanity in horny, blood-slurping vampires. He’s been called a master of “sad-happy cinema”; adept at finding the perfect balance between melancholy, humor, and real joy. His films such as Eagle vs. Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Boy work to this concept with the utmost precision, playing for laughs during awkward, tear-jerking moments and treating darker subject material with a gentle, playful touch. Waititi wants people to understand that happiness and sadness aren’t opposites, but two emotions that can and should coexist. There is beauty in despair and humor in our strife. Light is ever-present even in the utmost darkness.
Coming hot off the heels of the tiringly post-ironic Thor: Ragnarok back in 2017, Waititi makes his triumphant return to indie cinema with something much larger than the country of New Zealand that he’s used to working with: Nazi Germany. Jewish on his mother’s side and Māori on his father’s, Waititi decided to create his own skewering of the far-right and its modern-day uprising in our culture with Jojo Rabbit, a film that takes all of Waititi’s strengths from his previous films and attempts to format them into a concept bigger than he’s tackled before. The sad-happy cinema of Waititi’s former work finds itself at odds with his attempt at farce, and the heart found in believing there is good somewhere lost within evil doesn’t play as boldly or as intelligently as Waititi might have intended.
In ye olde Nazi Germany, young Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (a kickass Roman Griffin Davis) is the poster child for Hitler Youth. He’s utterly fanatical about Hitler, to the point that a smarmy, wise-cracking version of Adolf is his imaginary best friend (played by Waititi), ever-guiding him in the ways of a proper little Nazi, coaching him about hating Jews and the superiority of his Aryan blood. Jojo takes part in what is essentially a children’s Nazi training camp with his best friend, a little boy named Yorki (Archie Yates). Run by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) in association with Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen), the camp teaches Hitler Youth to burn books, throw grenades, kill innocent creatures, and just generally embrace the inherent stupidity and lunacy at the heart of Nazism at a young age.
Jojo’s older sister Inga recently died of influenza, and his father is purportedly off fighting the war in Italy, so he and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) live alone, as Rosie does her best to deal with her young son’s zealous enthusiasm for the purity of his bloodline. After a grenade-throwing incident in Hitler Youth camp leaves Jojo partially scarred on his face, he discovers a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in what used to be Inga’s bedroom. Jojo learns, to his utter revulsion, that Inga and Elsa used to be friends, and that his mother is a Jew sympathizer working to keep Elsa hidden in their home. Not wanting to get his mother in trouble and fearing Elsa’s retaliation, Jojo allows Elsa to stay in his home, though not without dehumanizing her at every chance he gets.
The performances in the film are absolutely top notch, and it’s with a heavy heart that I must reveal that Scarlett Johansson knocks it out of the park more than most. When given the proper material, her ability to become a massive comic force is impeccable. She’s sharp and unwavering, an absolute natural at comedic timing and a truly chameleon-like capacity to effortlessly slide into a role we’re not as used to seeing her in, embodying it with the utmost ease. Every scene with her is a delight, including with young Roman Griffin Davis; an irritating little anti-hero whose extremism does make it hard to root for him past a point, and Thomasin McKenzie as the broken but steadfast Elsa truly gives you hope for the next generation of acting.
But Jojo Rabbit is not nearly as funny as Waititi’s previous films – let’s just get that out of the way. Not even as funny as Thor: Ragnarok, which was much more grating upon a rewatch in my quiet living room as opposed to an uproarious full theater facilitating terrible sitcom scenarios between Thor and the Hulk. Though there’s still much to laugh at, the sharp witticisms and New Zealand-bred sense of humor are tamped down in favor of Waititi’s silly Hitler caricature flying out a window and vague homoeroticism between Captain Klenzendorf and Finkel. It all comes off as more a teenager’s sense of humor, and the jokes made at the expense of Nazis in order to expose them as the pathetic clowns they really are, are nothing we haven’t heard before, or that don’t feel particularly familiar already. It almost seems useless to satirize Nazis during a time when their insurgence in our culture is terrifyingly real. We know that Nazis are cowardly buffoons, and Waititi is not showing us anything new or different by putting that on film, nor is he helping to abate the real-life Nazis who feel emboldened to make a comeback in the 21st century.
The film is a hefty subject matter for Taika Waititi’s typical lighthearted ribbing and Wes Anderson-esque quirk to tackle, and it’s a subject matter that feels like much more than he understands how to even properly deal with. Imbued with equal parts rage over the horrifyingly current global rise of white supremacy and hotheadedness post-landing a successful superhero franchise installment, the film comes off as less like the nuanced, sad-happy cinema of Waititi’s yesteryear and more like a brazen, Frankensteined experiment. It’s difficult to watch a film intent on painting Nazis as the clowns that they were (and still are) in such ridiculous farce, only to find such farce later at odds with the film’s own heartfelt message of peoples’ capacity to change and love one another. People who are evil at their core do not always deserve the bandwidth for change, especially when their capacity to want to kill someone like me would maybe make it hard to find time out of my day to sit with them and explain to them that, yes, I’m Jewish and I’m also a human being. It’s not my job to teach someone about my own humanity.
Still, it’s hard to come away from the film without a lingering sense for Waititi’s original intent. His heart is always in the right place, and love is what anchors all his films first and foremost. He wanted to attempt a Nazi-skewering without abandoning his signature capacity for exploring human connection, but it created a fairly misguided endeavor. And, perhaps, that’s exactly why he should not have made the film in the first place. The edgy “anti-hate satire” he touted for months is not any more gutsy or smart than a Saturday Night Live sketch, and his knack for exploring the depth in simple, intimate situations and finding humor in tragedy does not translate properly to the sheer size of tragedy in Nazi Germany. Though an inherently sweet film, Jojo Rabbit is not necessary nor is it particularly surprising. It’s an okay film with a message we’ve heard before, and it’s not really the one we need right now.