Jojo Rabbit‘s pitch is clear and compelling: like a Wes Anderson movie, only the Boy Scouts are Nazis.
“You’re not a Nazi, you’re a 10-year-old kid who likes to dress up in a funny uniform and be part of a club,” teenage Elsa tells our protagonist, Jojo.
It’s a succinct encapsulation of the entire Nazi phenomenon and a great line for the trailer, but Jojo Rabbit, which Taika Waititi adapted from Christine Leunens’ novel, Caging Skies, feels a bit like a collection of great trailer lines in search of a story. It’s half screwball comedy, half limp dramedy. When the jokes subside, the central characters are a little too broad to entirely care about.
Certainly it has its moments. It’s a movie you can feel yourself wanting to be good. In place of Moonrise Kingdom‘s goofy scoutmaster played by Ed Norton, we get Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, a flamboyant flask puller banished to kid duty after getting his eye shot out at the front. Instead of Sam and Suzy, Moonrise Kingdom‘s star-crossed delinquents, we get Jojo and Elsa, a fanatical 10-year-old Nazi and the Jewish teenager he discovers hiding in his attic. Jojo Rabbit has one other delicious wrinkle; Jojo has an imaginary friend — Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi).
A Wes Anderson-esque Nazi movie meets Drop Dead Hitler (“Adolf Hitler taught me it was okay to be weird”) all sounds brilliant on paper, and there are times when the movie itself lives up to the pitch. Young Archie Yates gives a Sherman Merman-esque performance as Jojo’s plump best friend, Yorki, cheerfully regurgitating the most absurd Nazi propaganda with “just doin’ my job, ma’am” pluck, like an alternate universe Norman Rockwell painting. Likewise, the setting (1944-45 Berlin) allows for both droll one-liners (“I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism”) and flights of inspired absurdity (a cutaway to someone at Nazi HQ tasked with taking care of “the clones,” a group of identical, blue-eyed pod children).
But for all Taika Waititi’s talk of Jojo being a “satire” (which can mostly be translated as “please don’t thinkpiece me to death for dressing up like Hitler”), once Jojo Rabbit leaves Nazi Summer camp it turns decidedly unsatirical. It’s like he was worried people would say he was having too much fun playing Nazis without some kind of message, and so he leaned into painful earnestness. Which might work if Jojo Rabbit had anything to be painfully earnest about.
The story concerns Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), his mother (Scarlett Johansson), and the Jewish girl (Elsa, played by Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in a crawlspace-like secret compartment of the attic. Johannson’s performance as Nazi-era His Girl Friday, complete with jaunty Alpine hat, is mostly grating (we get it, actors, you enjoy doing accents), and Elsa’s character feels too lightly sketched. Mostly she’s a prop for Jojo’s change of heart rather than a full-fledged human with a compelling personality. And what’s the rub there, “little boy discovers Nazis might be bad?”
Moreover, Jojo Rabbit has the same central problem as its neckerchief’d predecessor Moonrise Kingdom: little kids falling in love, at least the kind of love that indie filmmakers generally imagine, is very dull. These Muppet Baby romances have all the tropes of the rom-com with none of the sexual tension. Who cares? And Jojo Rabbit is even worse than Moonrise in that regard, because its protagonist is only 10. Jojo keeps swearing to his mother and to Elsa that he’ll never fall in love, never kiss a girl, and they knowingly assure him that one day he’ll find someone, that he’ll think of nothing all day but getting to hold her again and get butterflies in his stomach whenever they talk. Jesus, he’s 10, let him play with bullfrogs or something.
If you’re going to make a 10-year-old boy’s crush interesting it should be a lot stranger and more perverse than your typical Hallmark drivel about bug-filled stomachs. Also, is falling in love with a girl really the most poignant way to depict someone falling out of love with Nazism? It’s not exactly a strenuous refutation of the ideology, if that was the goal. What if not-being-a-horrible-racist was just his rebound relationship?
Jojo Rabbit is at its best when it leans into its weirdness — crumbling nationalism as a backdrop for people struggling to cope, Leftovers-style. I was far more interested in Sam Rockwell’s character, an ambiguously gay comedic Kurtz for the dying days of Nazism. Now that would’ve been a movie. But Waititi spends so much energy trying to convince us that this story is universal that he often loses what made it novel in the first place.