SDiFF Opening Night Film Review: JoJo Rabbit

The 2019 San Diego International Film Festival opened its week-long celebration with writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. If you’re like me and wondered how many times a film can get away with characters saying “Heil Hitler,” the answer is too many. But that shouldn’t stop excited viewers from seeing the film, opening this Friday Oct. 19th in LA and NY and nationwide Oct. 31st. In fact, there’s a lot this “anti hate, pro peace” story has to offer.

For one, there’s the humor. The story follows 10-year-old JoJo Betzler (played by Roman Griffin Davis)- soon to be Jojo Rabbit due to an incident at his Nazi training camp- as he discovers that his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Avengers & Under the Skin) is hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace) in their attic during peak World War II. For JoJo, this is too much for any Nazi fanboy like himself to bear. So, what does he do? Like any other in-groom Nazi would: turn to the notorious (and imaginary) Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) for advice. 

Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)
courtesy of IMDb

Hollywood is no stranger to making fun of Hitler in film (e.g. Mel Brooks’ The Producers). This time around, director Taika Waititi, who describes himself as a Polynesian Jew, rightfully takes his stab at it using his comedic roots. At times, it’s difficult to determine from which perspective director Waititi wanted to tell his story, but the more frustrating part about Jojo Rabbit is its trade-off between accuracy and humor. That’s not to say that the film is without its violence and shocking imagery because it certainly has those components. However, the representation of the Nazis is a bit uneven throughout the movie to go with its unequal tone, making for a frustrating viewing experience despite the frequent laughs you’ll have along the way.

Outside of its ability to generate humor from the script and an imaginary Adolf Hitler, the film doesn’t necessarily share things we aren’t already familiar with given the long list of existing WW2 films and well… history books. And overall, that’s the biggest letdown. At opportunities to expand upon heartfelt moments, filmmaker Waititi goes for the goofy and outrageous, sometimes to the film’s benefit. But at most points, character growth takes a backseat to these instances, leading to some disappointment as far as the script is concerned. Actually, it’s a bit of a train wreck in that regard, but the humor might make up for this for some audiences. 

Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit (2019)
courtesy of IMDb

The true magic of Jojo Rabbit lies within the cast and acting. Waititi, Johansson, Mckenzie, Rockwell, and Davis all give great performances with perfect comedic timing. But the best and most special moments are reserved for beautiful interactions- specifically, Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson’s characters. Interactions between Elsa and Rosie is when the film sails to its peak(s) because their relationship is the embodiment of compassion, which is the primary message of the film at its core. Unfortunately, (and once again), these moments are few and far between despite being the centerpiece of the film’s strength.

Ultimately, the power of perspective is a phenomenal approach to making a satirical film of such a heavy topic. But satire without challenging the way we as viewers think and feel is just cheap parody without actual criticism. And that’s what Jojo Rabbit is. It chooses the humorous side of satire and completely neglects the part where we could learn something new. So, this certainly won’t be for everyone.

The film’s end even puts a nice cherry on top of the standard anti-hate cake Taika has fed its viewers, but then he chooses to end the film with a somewhat unnecessary and irresponsible quote from German poet Rainer Maria Rilke:

Let everything happen to you – beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

… but something tells me the many victims of Hitler’s regime would have easily opted for peace right from the start.

Rating: ★★★

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