Jojo Rabbit review – Nazi “satire” leaves a bad taste

Taika Waititi's sixth film fails to justify its existence as either a satire of the Nazi regime or as a comedy

The fact that Jojo Rabbit‘s marketing campaign insisted on repeatedly telling us it was an “anti-hate satire” should have been the first sign that something was wrong. Set in Nazi Germany at the height of the war, its story – based on the novel “Caging Skies” by Christine Leunens – follows ten-year-old Hitler Youth “Jojo” (Roman Griffin Davis), whose fanaticism is personified by an imaginary best friend who takes the form of Hitler himself, as played by the film’s writer-director Taika Waititi. Presumably the marketing department stumbled upon the same problem that most audience members are likely to, in that Jojo Rabbit never feels much like a satire or a comedy. Or much of anything, in fact.

It isn’t that Nazism cannot be satirised, or hasn’t been satirised successfully before. Chaplin’s The Great Dictactor blended comic antics with heartfelt sincerity to miraculous effect, while Mel Brooks’ The Producers went for outright ridicule and came up trumps. But when brainwashed Jojo stumbles upon a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic, it’s obvious where we’re headed. Waititi – though competent behind the camera – never veers from this generic path, relying on some neat visuals, soundtrack cues, and anachronistic one-liners to keep us tied over. Soon you start to wonder why Waititi’s Germany looks like a chocolate box, or a location right out of a Wes Anderson film. No answers come. It doesn’t take long for the repetitive gags and plotting to tell you what you don’t want to admit, given this filmmaker’s run of genuinely great comedies to date: Jojo Rabbit doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say. As a campy, petulant incarnation of Hitler, Waititi occasionally amuses, but the film’s double conceit of an imaginary friend and a secret friend hiding in the attic feels like overkill.

There are, admittedly, a few saving graces. Now and then a joke lands, and you’re able to glimpse how a more daring and forthright film imbued with the comic chops of Waititi’s own Hunt for the Wilderpeople might have done justice to the material. Thomasin McKenzie, amazing in Leave No Trace, is equally captivating and interesting here, and Scarlett Johansson also tries her best as Jojo’s conflicted mother, an anti-fascist destined for a tragic fate. Less can be said for the remaining cast (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, amongst others, playing variations of inept Nazis), who – assumedly on their director’s order – resort to half-arsed European accents that strive for comedy but fall flat.

The crucial mistake, however, is in the film’s decision to never fully commit to its ridicule of the Nazis. Instead Jojo Rabbit lingers in an uncomfortable midpoint where its alleged satire is only ever evasive and vague. These Nazis never feel like much of a threat; history tells us the very opposite. Nothing rings true, surely the staple of any great satire? Waititi’s off-kilter approach is perfectly encapsulated in a later scene in which Sam Rockwell’s character – a high-ranking member of the Nazi party – is gifted with a redemptive arc. What, exactly, is our director trying to tell us in this moment? It’s a question that lingers across all 108 minutes of Jojo Rabbit‘s eventually exasperating runtime.

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