A charming turn from the Oscar-nominated actor is the best thing about a thinly etched second world war satire
Theres a smug surface-level audacity to the second world war anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit, a film that employs a repetitive wink as it proudly trots out its central gimmick, recasting Hitler as a buffoonish imaginary friend for maximum lols. In Taika Waititis patchy follow-up to Thor: Ragnarok, loosely based on the novel by Christine Leunens, young keen-to-be-accepted German boy Johannes AKA Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) wants nothing more than to be friends with the Fhrer and on his quest to become the countrys fiercest Jew-killing patriot, he invents a fantasy version as a form of guidance, played by Waititi himself.
When he finds that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) has been secretly hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie), hes forced into an uneasy agreement which involves him keeping quiet about her existence to protect his family while also using her to learn more about the evils of Jewish people. But as Jojo grows to care for her, his belief system is slowly turned on its head and he starts to realise that his hero might not be worth worshipping after all.
Its exhaustively well-worn territory, not just the subgenre at large but also the dynamic at its centre. Tangentially similar ground was covered in 2008s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and last years Where Hands Touch and in adapting Leunens far darker novel Caging Skies, Waititi decided to add the imaginary element himself. It often feels like a way of distracting us from the truth, an elaborate smoke and mirrors act to fool us into believing Jojo Rabbit has something new to offer. Because while there are some initially amusing moments given the outlandish conceit, Waititi doesnt really know what to do with his imaginary Hitler past an increasingly repetitive cycle of decreasingly funny acts of idiocy. Hes essentially a single sketch character and while Waititi plays him well, theres only so much we need of him.
There are some moments of limited complexity, especially with Johanssons conflicted mother who knows she has to play ball with the Nazis despite her personal beliefs. Its a delicate balancing act, begrudgingly allowing her son to train with them, unable to publicly show her repulsion, while subtly challenging his rapidly hateful worldview at home. Shes the best thing about Jojo Rabbit, charming and funny in her lighter moments, convincing us that shes a real person in a film thats mostly populated by caricatures, including brief appearances from Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson. As a braggadocious Nazi captain, Sam Rockwell is stuck in his one-note comic shtick and of the three racists hes played in the last year, its the least effective, suggesting that maybe he should try not playing a racist next. Waititi also attempts to awkwardly humanise him near the end in a way that I found uneasy at least within the simplistic framework of a movie that paints most Nazis as clumsy morons. Does Waititi really need to tell us, at this particular moment in time, that, hey, there were good people on both sides?
His film exists in such a colour-coded Wes Anderson-esque universe that the true horror of the war always seems far removed. Its oddly safe, given the subject matter, and the humour is similarly sanitised. What Waititi thinks is shockingly audacious is in fact frustratingly timid, he opts for a gentle prod when maybe a punch would do.
Jojo Rabbit is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 18 October and the UK on 1 January.