'Jojo Rabbit' delivers laughs and heart in unexpected Nazi satire

Brad Keefe
"Jojo Rabbit"

A movie like writer/director Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” probably shouldn’t work at all, let alone as well as it does.

A biting, irreverent political satire meets a coming-of-age story, it’s full of “Should we be laughing at this?” humor that gives way to a surprising sweetness. The New Zealand director had a big hill to climb with this movie's premise, but he’s made the best film of his career so far, and one of the very best of 2019.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a lonely little boy just trying to fit in with the world, but his world is Nazi Germany in the waning days of World War II. In his desire to grow up to be a “good” Nazi, he internalizes his nationalist indoctrination in the form of an imaginary friend. That friend happens to be Adolph Hitler (played by Waititi).

Only Jojo can see his version of Hitler — a version that plays to Jojo’s own insecurities and deep fear of the scary Jews he’s been taught exist. But balancing Jojo’s sense of faux duty is his mother (Scarlett Johansson), who cares for Jojo while his father is supposedly off fighting the war. She’s a loving balance for the rhetoric Jojo has known his whole life, and she’s brought home a secret that will change his whole worldview.

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To put it mildly, an imaginary Hitler comedy in 2019 won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. You may not jibe with Waititi’s way of leaping wildly between tones — sometimes farce, sometimes pointed satire, sometimes simply heartbreaking.

In the opening act, I leaned to a friend during the screening and whispered, “It’s like ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ meets ‘Dr. Strangelove.'" By the end, I would add comparisons to Mel Brooks’ movies, “Inglourious Basterds,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “Schindler’s List.” If that sounds like your cup of tea, go see this one.

The marketing materials for “Jojo Rabbit” all label it “an anti-hate satire,” not that there should be any doubt. Waititi portrays a neutered Hitler, and his Nazis are comically bumbling in the days when Germany is starting to realize it’s losing this war.

Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson both go over-the-top as Nazi officers training a next generation of Nazis that will never be, in part because of the awakening Jojo has. The young Davis is up to the task of giving the film heart. He has a hard time holding on to the hate he’s been taught, especially when the world brings change to his home. Johansson brings in a mother figure that pulls at the heart, a pacifist who wants an end to the war and bears her own secrets.

The laughs are plentiful, assuming you get on the level of the satire, but “Jojo” also brings one of the year’s biggest emotional punches. Will it be divisive? You bet. Particularly since a lot of this satire feels very in-the-moment. There’s no doubt Waititi is speaking as much to our present as our history.

It’s a little uneven in places, but the audacity at play here makes it easy for me to overlook some flaws, especially when the unexpected sweetness comes in.

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5 stars out of 5

"Jojo Rabbit"