Shortly after Taika Waititi’s JOJO RABBIT was nominated for best picture I started to see people cast aspersions. Before that I had mostly heard that it was only okay. And that was kind of what I expected, because I first knew Waititi from WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and that’s one of those movies that I saw and thought was pretty funny but when five years passed and people were still talking about it like it was the first time they fell in love I couldn’t relate.
That was a stupid thing to get hung up on. Since then Waititi had become better known for injecting the THOR series with life, color and humor, and more importantly he’d made THE HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE. I loved that movie, and JOJO is in a similar vein: a funny, clever story with deep emotions bubbling up from beneath its quirky surface. Which admittedly feels weird to say, because it’s about, uh, Nazi Germany.
Johannes (Roman Griffin Davis, his first movie) and his friend Yorki (Archie Yates, UNTITLED HOME ALONE REBOOT) are enthusiastic participants at a sort of MOONRISE-KINGDOM-looking Hitler Youth summer camp. They’re big nerds taking great pride in learning all the normal boy scout camping shit, and they look like they could be in a live action Peanuts movie, but they’ve also been convinced it’s their patriotic duty to spout all the nonsense they’ve been taught about Nazis being the good guys and Jews being monsters.
Johannes gets the titular nickname from older kids at the camp – basically adults – who bully him and order him to kill a rabbit. That he can’t do it proves he doesn’t have cruelty in his heart yet – the hateful ideology seems to be pretty abstract to him until after he blows himself up with dynamite trying to prove himself. While recovering with facial scars at home he discovers a teenage girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE), in a hidden compartment behind his deceased sister’s room. Because while he’s been gone his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, HOME ALONE 3), has been harboring an orphaned Jewish girl.
So the premise, taken from a reportedly more serious-toned book called Caging Skies by New Zealand author Christine Leunens, is that this young fascist in training regains his inherent innocence by actually meeting one of these Jewish people they’ve brainwashed him to be so afraid of. He really believes Jewish people have horns, so he asks her about things like that. Not anxious to become his personal Judaism tutor she instead plays along, trying to scare him. As their conversations continue and he keeps not turning her in she and we can tell that he likes her but, in a frustratingly accurate portrayal of male behavior, he can’t admit it and keeps belittling her and lying to her.
Many reviews of the book complain about hating this little shit the whole time, but Davis is so button-eyed and vulnerable that I think the humanity comes through. He’s acting the way he thinks he’s supposed to act, but it’s a front so transparent as to be comical. He still has a chance to shake off the programming of these assholes. As Elsa tells him, “You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.” For now that’s accurate.
Sam Rockwell (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES), Rebel Wilson (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB) and Stephen Merchant (TOOTH FAIRY) are the technical grownups playing different shades of ridiculous Nazis. Rockwell’s is the most complex, harboring certain secrets and sympathies for the resistance, but he also seems bitter about being taken from combat by an injury, so he’s hardly a hero. Merchant’s is a straight up guy-who-gets-melted-in-RAIDERS-OF-THE-LOST-ARK looking motherfucker who is a genuine threat, but made to look very silly just by the ludicrousness of having to exchange “heil Hitler”s with everybody he encounters.
Though I came in a little skeptical, I knew the movie had me during the opening credits, set to a German version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” with Nazi propaganda clips edited to look like Beatlemania. It’s impossible not to see a Wes Anderson influence in Waititi’s style, but to me there’s a trace of a Paul Verhoeven vibe there – people don’t want to see you earnestly wag your finger at the ills of the world, so instead you act like you’re celebrating the ghastliness, shoving it out there like it’s a fun consumer product we all enjoy. Hopefully that makes us squirm.
I haven’t yet read what people hate about JOJO. If it’s that they think it’s wrong to make a cute comedy about a kid in the Hitler Youth, fair enough. The trailers emphasized a reoccurring gimmick that Hitler (played buffoonishly by Waititi) appears as Jojo’s imaginary friend, encouraging him. These are funny scenes, but hardly the premise of the movie. That wouldn’t be enough for me. This is not some South Park/Family Guy performative edginess shit – I wouldn’t be impressed by a “Can you believe we dare to joke about the Holocaust?” posture.
Fox Searchlight advertised the movie as “a satire about hate” so we’d know they weren’t trying to be glib about the topic. More than “about hate” I see it as being about any of the horrible things we’re conditioned to go along with. And it’s not even about how we’re raised – Jojo has very good, anti-Nazi parents – but what the society around us acts like is okay. I don’t see it as a plea to see hateful people as Jojo, with a potential for kindness beneath it all. I think it’s a warning that we are Jojo, and though we’re thankfully not in literal Nazi Germany we better be pretty damn careful that we really are the good guys we think we are.
Without a doubt my favorite character is Rosie. She’s so much cooler than the standard angelic mother character. She strides assertively into the movie, dressed extremely fashionably, using her standing in the community or just the power of her casualness to get away with humiliating the dipshits who should’ve taken better care of her son. At first I thought the joke was that we have to ignore our instincts to love this plucky boat-rocking Mary Poppins figure – she’s a Nazi! But of course by the time we find out about Elsa we know she just plays one in public.
I’ve always liked Johansson, but I think this is a new high for her. Yeah, she’s surprisingly natural with the German accented English, but also she’s playing this multi-layered super-mom who fulfills her role as a loving protector and nurturer, hides her secret heroism, privately worries about her son’s corrupted values, and copes by using a dry sense of humor that goes over the heads of the Nazis. There’s an amazing scene I don’t even know how to describe where, after an argument with Jojo about his absent father, she pretends to be her husband and herself having a conversation. It’s like she’s teasing him and then entertaining him with escalating absurdity, and somehow it turns sweet and touching.
SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH TO AVOID A BIG SPOILER but man, when I catch up with Waititi’s other movies I’m gonna be terrified every time a cool mom shows up. I read a review that called JOJO’s WWII “bafflingly unthreatening,” and I found that in itself baffling. This thing took me through the wringer meeting Rosie, seeing her relationship with her son, learning what she’s up to and then finding her hanging in the public square. The tragic part of the story you know might happen but you delude yourself maybe it won’t. A total gut punch.
I keep thinking about the scene where Rosie and Johannes argue about some shit he learned at camp until she cites a rule of no more politics at the dinner table. She’s sincerely making peace so she can have pleasant mother-son time, but I think it’s a pretty good depiction of a conundrum I think about more often these days. He’s talking literal Nazi shit and in order to take the high road she has to dismiss it as “politics.” Some people pretend there’s this 50/50ish political divide and both sides need to learn to be polite to each other for the world to be sane again. But what good is it to label everything right or left when some things are just right or wrong? Slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, Vietnam, Iraq, the Muslim ban, family separation, using the office of the presidency for self-enrichment, illegally withholding Congressionally approved aid money as part of a conspiracy to extort an ally into making up a fake corruption investigation against a political opponent and then lying about it, refusing all oversight, setting a precedent of unlimited executive power, repeatedly bragging that you take shits so monstrous that it takes 15 flushes to get it down… these things are not just “politics.” We can’t just agree to disagree.
Maybe that’s part of why JOJO bowled me over. This is another weird comparison and a little embarrassing to admit, but this is the only movie besides THE TREE OF LIFE that brought me to a place where tears just started flooding out of me without me really understanding why. In this case it was kind of a happy scene that kicked it off, but it made me start thinking about the time period being depicted and then the things going on today and then I didn’t even know what it was, it just overflowed.
“I laughed, I cried” is technically what happened, but doesn’t do this movie justice.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.