MOVIE REVIEW — Jojo Rabbit
When people ask me who my favorite filmmaker working today is, there is always only one answer; Taika Waititi. I fell in love with his style the first time I watched What We Do in the Shadows back in 2017, and since them have consumed, loved, and adored each one of this other films. From the impeccable Hunt for the Wilderpeople, to his first entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi’s filmography has quickly become one of my personal favorites. So, with that being said, you might ask something along the lines of, “well isn’t this going to be a totally biased review?” to which my response would be, “no.”. While I love Waititi as a filmmaker, I admit that his films are not perfect and that there is room for error. That being said, this was the second film I got to see at the 28th Philadelphia Film Festival and it fucking ruled.
In Jojo Rabbit, a lonely German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose world view is turned upside down when he discovers his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl, Elsa, (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Aided only by his idiotic imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi), Jojo must confront his blind nationalism. If you are reading this and know nothing about the film, welcome to the genuine insanity that is Jojo Rabbit. I genuinely do not think there is another filmmaker working today that could have properly told this story, executing it in a non-offensive manner (except to Nazis, but fuck those guys) and pulling it off in nearly every way imaginable, which is a testament to Waititi’s talent as a director. While some could absolutely make the claim that portraying the Nazis, and more specifically Adolf Hitler, as bits of comedy is insensitive and downright offensive, you could make the same argument for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which Waititi has sourced as inspiration (as well as Life is Beautiful). The point of Jojo Rabbit is not to make fun of the Nazis, rather to exemplify the anti-hate message that the characters of Rosie, Elsa, and later Jojo himself stand for.
If you have seen any of Waititi’s prior films, you know by now that he is a very capable director and should know what to expect in terms of directorial style. That remains the same here, as it isn’t broke, so why fix it? If you have not seen any of Taika’s films, then you should stop reading this review and go watch Boy or Hunt For the Wilderpeople right this second, but that is besides the point. Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, The Incredibles) provides the score, and while it is good, I would say the non-score music fits the tone of the film more than what Giacchino brings to the table. Jojo Rabbit does feature some beautiful cinematography at points, with the Director of Photography being Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master). Both scenes at the Gallows are two examples of the great camerawork featured here.
Roman Griffin Davis gives a star-making performance in his first ever acting role as the lead character Jojo, conveying the distraught nature of the young German’s dysfunctional life during the end of World War II. Davis captures the childlike foolishness that one might expect from a kid who’s imaginary friend is a flamboyant incarnation Adolf Hitler, while also presenting a look at what troubles a confused child involved with the Nazi party would face as they were born into a world of propaganda and false ideologies. Through his performance and the writing of his character, Roman makes the ending of the film that much more satisfying. Thomasin McKenzie is perfectly cast as Elsa, the Jewish girl hiding out in Jojo’s household. She brings immense emotional weight to the film, while also nailing every bit of comedy she is given. Scarlett Johansson is a controversial figure in the film community for many, but the work she does here as Jojo’s mother Rosie is phenomenal to say the least, both adding some levity to the film while also being truly heartbreaking.
As for the supporting cast, Taika managed to wrangle quite the ensemble. Casting himself as the imaginary version of Hitler has to be one of the most brilliant pieces of casting in recent memory, and something that only Taika Waititi could pull off. Archie Yates plays Jojo’s best-friend Yorki, who does get a good amount of comedy to work with throughout, though he just fades in and out of the story as he pleases. Alfie Allen is funny enough with what he is given, but he ultimately proves to be pretty forgettable by the end of the affair, similarly to Rebel Wilson. Both of them get laughs during their screentime, but ultimately do not add anything substantial to the film which is my only real knock on it. Two individuals who do not have this effect however are Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf and Stephen Merchant as Deertz. These two absolutely kill the roles, bringing some of the funniest moments in the film with them. Stephen Merchant, for those of you who do not know, is a comedic gem. Everything this guy does is absolutely hilarious, and his short role in this film is no exception. He is featured in one of my favorite sequences in the entire movie (the “Heil Hitler” scene for those wondering) and absolutely steals the show with his presence. Seriously, can we please get more Stephen Merchant, please and thank you!
Sam Rockwell’s character and his fate in the end of the film seems to be a bit of contention among critics, in saying that the film is trying to push a “good on both sides” agenda, when in reality Klenzendorf practically states towards the end of the movie that he is not a good person, mentioning to Jojo that his mother is an “actual good person”. Giving Klenzendorf a moment of good will or slight redemption does not negate the rest of the nearly two hour runtime that is consistently showing how awful the Nazis are. The film even hints at him not being pleased with his position in the military, as he laughs at how silly Jojo’s anti-jew book sounds, and also VERY briefly hinting at the possibility that he and Alfie Allen’s character were potentially homosexual lovers, which would put them in direct opposition of the Nazi’s ideals. In conclusion, no, Taika Waititi is not a Nazi and is not trying to make audiences sympathize with those responsible for the Holocaust.
While the comparisons can and will be made to The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful, based on both tone and setting, the one that became clearer and clearer as the film went on was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. A dark comedy about the literal end of the world at the hands of bumbling idiots dealing with nuclear war, Dr. Strangelove feels like a predecessor to Waititi’s film in that both take very real threats and turn them into a complete satire, though Taika’s film has more heart (but Strangelove is ultimately the better film). Both the Americans in Kubrick’s film and the Nazis in Waititi’s film feel as if they are cut from the same cloth, constantly fumbling the metaphorical football at nearly every step of the way in their respective film.
While not the best film of 2019, Jojo Rabbit is absolutely ONE OF the best of the year. With all-around great performances (namely an amazing debut for Roman Griffin Davis), a beautiful story that features some of the funniest humor of the year as well as some truly heartbreaking scenes that will leave you on the verge of tears, this film deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone when it gets its official wide release in the beginning of November.
So what do we do now?
Jojo Rabbit is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, but is opening to a wide release in the beginning of November, so be sure to check it out in theaters when it arrives near you!
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If you are interested, I also got to see Parasite at the Philadelphia Film Festival and wrote up an official review which you can check out here: