Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

JOJO RABBIT
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Taika Waititi
STARS Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson

In 1942, the Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece To Be or Not to Be (reviewed here) opened to mixed reviews and audience indifference, as many critics and patrons objected to the idea of making a comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland. In 1968, Mel Brooks’ Oscar-winning classic The Producers also debuted to mixed reviews, with several scribes and viewers offended at the comedic portrayals of both Jews and Nazis (Roger Ebert reported that one woman confronted Brooks and told him that “your movie is vulgar,” to which the comic legend famously replied, “Lady, it rose below vulgarity”).

Cut to 2019, when Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit premieres to mixed reviews (audience reaction is still a work in progress at this stage), with ample critics objecting to its satiric treatment of the Nazi menace. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

There is potentially objectionable content in Jojo Rabbit, but it has nothing to do with treating Nazis in a comedic manner. Rather, it has to do with treating one Nazi (played by Sam Rockwell) in a sympathetic manner, with the character ultimately revealing a selfless and even heroic side. In Trump’s AmeriKKKa, this smacks a bit too much of the “good people on both sides” comment that the presidential putz lovingly directed at his fellow white supremacists. Aside from this misstep, though, the comedy in Jojo Rabbit is good to go, with Waititi using humor in the same way as Lubitsch and Brooks before him.

The plot centers on Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a young boy hoping to become a good little Nazi. He accepts the concept of Jews as horned demons, and his imaginary friend is an imbecilic version of Adolf Hitler (Waititi). But his distorted worldview starts to crumble after he learns that his mother (Scarlett Johansson), a German who despises the Nazis, is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, the breakout star of 2018’s Leave No Trace) in their attic. As Jojo gets to know Elsa and realizes she’s a normal and decent person, he begins to question everything he’s been taught, particularly by his own personal Adolf.

Whereas the comedy of To Be or Not to Be and The Producers was largely rooted in slapstick and dialogue, Jojo Rabbit finds Waititi taking a more surreal approach, with many scenes shot in a manner slightly removed from reality. In further contrast, the drama is also more harsh than that explored in the previous pictures, with one shocking death puncturing the proceedings late in the game.

With its inclination to bolt from comedy to drama and back again at whiplash speed, it’s easy to see why Jojo Rabbit would upset many. Yet those inclined to movies with a dark comic bent should find it to be a rather savory stew.

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