I hesitate to start this review of Taika Watiti's latest project, a hilarious and sad dramedy that satirizes Nazism, because I don't want to talk about Marvel anymore -- too late already. And anyway, I can't think of any better way to describe the way this movie succeeds in walking a thin and unexpected tightrope that even Waititi himself has previously failed to traverse.
|No, I'm not going to compare the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Nazis.|
Maybe you liked Thor: Ragnarok, and the way Waititi used Marvel Brand humor in it. If so, go see this movie. If you thought Ragnarok was funny, you'll think this film is hilarious. What I'm here to say though, is a slightly more shocking revelation: that even though I hated the humor in Ragnarok, I still thought Jojo Rabbit was not only wonderfully hilarious, but also incredibly moving and upsetting, without forcing the comedy to give way to the darkness, or vice versa. It's a black comedy, but usually dark comedies don't make me laugh out loud. And usually laugh-out-loud comedies don't make my heart ache. So this little rabbit is a strange beast indeed.
Starring Roman Griffin Davis as Jojo, a nine-year-old Nazi Youth recruit who dreams of being best friends with der Führer. An imaginary version of Adolf (played by Waititi) appears to him from time to time to council him in the ways of the Reich. Jojo's mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (the one-and-only Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls, and when Jojo discovers her, his loyalty to the Nazi ideology is tested in life-changing ways.
|He comes of age and must chose a path as he is slowly taught what Nazism really is.|
This film's greatest feature is its unique style of comedy. Everyone in the film does cheesy German accents, and most of the jokes, as expected, are about Nazism and WWII. But because Waititi writes with his very specific New Zealand-style comedy, the two elements blend in an inimitable way. The result is winning. The jokes are often dark, yet presented with such good-natured sincerity that the films stays light. Now comes the Marvel comparison. Because this movie, much like they, and specifically Thor: Ragnarok, attempt to blend humor with serious drama -- sometimes within the same moment.
If you know me, you know that this is one of the things that bothered me most about Ragnarok (and the MCU of late in general). Because when you put humor and seriousness together, the result always seems to be that the humor undercuts the serious drama and renders it null and void. I won't say that Jojo Rabbit's drama is equally as effective as it would be as a straight drama, but it is, without a doubt, as effective as it meant to be. It can hit hard. I think this movie does two things that the MCU has yet to try to make the mixture work: One, that it is a dark comedy in the first place, so even in the "pure" humor scenes there is always an undercurrent of the horrors that occurred in Germany during WWII.
|From the horrors, it admirably refuses to shy away.|
And the second thing that makes the mixture work is that it's done at a higher rate of swapping tones. The MCU (I'm sorry to write it this many times) will usually have a serious moment that is capped by humor. Jojo Rabbit, within the same amount of run-time, will have switched from humor to serious, to humor, to serious, to humor again -- and I think most importantly, it ends the exchanges with seriousness. That lets the audience know that ultimately, it's the real things; the heart and the drama, that is most important in the film. That makes a world of difference.
On that note, Sam Rockwell stole the show for me, being his usually brilliantly hilarious self with a role catered to him, that melts into poignancy later on. Stephen Merchant also hits a perfect balance of tones. Archie Yates as Jojo's Hitler Youth friend is a scene-stealer. Johansson tips toward drama as she's meant to and performs her heart out. McKenzie has that special, sweetly tough quality about her, and it works wonderfully. Waititi limits himself, which sharpens his wild-card character. And 11-year-old Roman in his introductory role carries the movie, despite all the seasoned acting strength that surrounds him. The movie is about him, and the focus on Jojo, his mind, his arc and his struggles, is sharp.
|And it does it all while being riotously funny!|
I'm glad the berating of this movie for making fun of Nazis didn't last long. Turns out there's clearly nothing wrong with making fun of evil, and neither does this movie forget that evil is what it's making fun of. It doesn't pull its punches but also never loses sight of the light that it wants to promote while it beats down the darkness. Its laughs won't soon grow old, but neither will its tender heart. Jojo Rabbit is a brave little film.