“JOJO RABBIT”: Master race

Published November 18, 2019 by Robert W. Butler at Butler’s Cinema Scene

“JOJO RABBIT” My rating: C+r (Now showing) | 118 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“Jojo Rabbit” is one of those movies more satisfying in principle than in practice.

The latest from Kiwi auteur Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and, of course, TV’s “Flight of the Conchords”) is nothing if not timely.

Waititi’s subject is right-wing political fanaticism — German Naziism, to be precise — and his methodology is that of off-the-wall satire.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

The title character is 10-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis) — Jojo for short.  Jojo lives in Germany in the latter stages of World War II.  His father has gone off to fight for the Fuehrer in Italy…at least that’s the story his mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is sticking to.

Jojo is himself a worshipper of Hitler and all things Nazi. (Those uniforms! That invigorating aura of invincibility and racial superiority!) In fact, his adoring  imagination has conjured up a make-believe best friend…none other than Adolf himself (Waititi), who loves hanging out with Jojo and exudes childish enthusiasms and questionable advice.

Some of the film’s funniest material is front loaded…early on Jojo and his fat pal Yorki (Archie Yates) spend a weekend at a Hitler Youth camp where they are subjected to lectures on racial purity, practice lobbing grenades and gaze in gape-mouthed admiration at their chief instructor, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a one-eyed combat veteran rarely seen without his two flunkies, Finkel (Alfie Allen) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson).

The whole thing is like a Boy Scout rally with live ammunition.  Except that Jojo collapses when ordered to snap a bunny’s neck with his bare hands to prove his willingness to slay the enemies of the Reich. Apparently Jojo’s love of manly posing won’t be enough to make him a good National Socialist.Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis

Waititi’s screenplay (based on Christine Leunens’ novel) pivots on young Jojo’s discovery that there’s a secret room under the eaves of his house; hiding there is Elsa (“Leave No Trace’s” Thomasin McKenzie) a 16-year-old Jew whose parents have died in the camps.  Turns out that Jojo’s fun-loving Mom is a member of the Resistance.

A big chunk of the film traces the initially combative relationship between the two young people. Jojo is inclined to turn Elsa in to the police…but that would mean putting his mother at risk. Instead he decides to keep Elsa as a sort of experiment. He will pick her brain for details about these strange creatures, the Jews, and write a book about that evil race that will put him back in the good graces of the Party.

Along the way, of course, he inadvertently absorbs some lessons about humanity.

Wapiti’s influences are plenty obvious.  For starters, Volker Schlondorff’s 1979 “The Tin Drum,” the dark fantasia about a German boy who, in defiance of the Nazis, stops growing at age 3.

Then there’s the Jojo-Elsa relationship, which echoes Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, especially the famous scene in which Huck decides to defy the law and his religious upbringing to protect his friend, the runaway slave Jim. (“All right then, I’ll GO to HELL!”)

The Hitler Youth scenes owe a great deal to the Khaki Scouts sequences in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.”

And Jojo’s rotund, bespectacled and preternaturally well-spoken pal Yorki is a dead ringer for Piggy in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

All well and good. But “Jojo Rabbit” never quite finds the sweet spot between the absurd and the tragic. The realistic depictions of battle and wartime atrocities (corpses dangling in the town square) are at odds with the comedic elements. From scene to scene it’s often like watching two different movies.

That’s a balancing act Waititi cannot maintain. In fact, his performance as Adolf is almost too silly for its own good; it eats away at the horror.

Every now and then, though, there’s a breakthrough.  In the film’s later stages Jojo’s home is paid a visit by a  Gestapo team lead by the human scarecrow Deetz (Stephen Merchant); they tear the place up looking for contraband and/or hidden Jews.  The sequence drips with suspense and fear; at the same time, the Nazis are so intent on properly exchanging “Heil Hitler”s that the thing turns to high comedy.

It’s a passage worthy of Mel Brooks.

| Robert W. Butler

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Robert W. Butler for 41 years reviewed films for the Kansas City Star. In May 2011 he was downsized.

He couldn’t take the hint.

OKAY, so here’s the deal. I write mostly about movies. One good thing about no longer writing for the paper is that I’m free to ignore the big dumb Hollywood turkeys that don’t interest me. So don’t expect every blessed release to be written about here. Many films aren’t worth the effort. Besides, at my age it’s not the $8. It’s the two hours.

UPDATE: OCTOBER, 2014: Well, here’s an interesting twist. The Star wants me back as a freelance film reviewer!!! Apparently enough time has passed that they cannot be accused of firing me so that they can rehire me at a fraction of my original pay (I gather the federal government frowns upon that practice.) So from now on I will probably be reviewing a movie a week for the newspaper.