Berlin bust: Jojo Rabbit loses its satirical footing

A German boy played by Roman Griffin Davis makes Adolf Hitler his imaginary friend in Jojo Rabbit. Image courtesy Fox Searchlight A German boy played by Roman Griffin Davis makes Adolf Hitler his imaginary friend in Jojo Rabbit. Image courtesy Fox Searchlight

The good news is that you’ll love writer/director/actor Taika Waititi. The bad news is there’s no charming your way out of a misfire as big as Jojo Rabbit. You can see that this is an “anti-hate satire,” with it plastered over all of the promotional materials like it’s the official subtitle, but it lacks the teeth to be convincingly pro or anti anything. There’s a place in the world for a movie like Jojo Rabbit. Unfortunately, Jojo Rabbit is not that movie.

As World War II draws to a close, 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) wants to be the best Nazi he can be. Living in Berlin with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), his walls are covered with propaganda, like they might be with Beatles posters if he were born in London 20 years later. The opening credits make that idea explicit, with a German recording of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” against a montage of Nazi propaganda edited to resemble Beatlemania; not a direct comparison of the two phenomena by Waititi, but an introduction to Jojo’s mindset.

Jojo Rabbit

PG-13, 108 minutes

Violet Crown Cinema

Joining him as he tries to fulfill his patriotic duty is his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (Waititi). Hitler, like, any imaginary friend, is an extension of Jojo’s psyche, helping him navigate life’s questions: How to be a good person? What does it mean to have responsibility for your family and country? And what do you do when you find your mother is secretly hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in your dead sister’s old room?

The parts of Jojo Rabbit that work do so not because of its satirical aspirations, but in spite of them. The young cast is very talented with surprising maturity. The interplay between Davis and McKenzie is engaging, even if the material is entry-level treacle that doesn’t actually address genuine hate. It’s clear what he’s going for: a child in wartime and the effects of rhetoric on a mind that doesn’t know how to process it. But Nazis weren’t anti-Semitic because Germans weren’t lucky enough to know any plucky, artistic Jews that resembled their sisters. They did know Jews, their friends and neighbors, and they decided to betray them anyway. Any anti-hate satire worth its moniker ought to confront that first and foremost.

The more established cast is spottier. Johansson is light on her feet but a full embodiment of her character’s ideals, and seeing her in more roles like Rosie would be a delight. The same cannot be said for Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, and Alfie Allen, all of whose charm is completely misused. Waititi’s version of Hitler is totally out of place, dragging whatever value there might have been in the main story into inappropriately placed slapstick. That he’s presenting Hitler through an impressionable boy’s eyes isn’t offensive. It’s that by doing so, he’s detracting from a story that might have been worthwhile so he can ham it up and say 2010isms like “It’s weird now, isn’t it?”

We know Waititi can do better. Let’s wait until he does before we start throwing trophies at him.

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

See it again

The House of the Devil

R, 95 minutes

October 31, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

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