So far, the genre of Holocaust comedy has been largely, no doubt blessedly, sparse: Charlie Chaplin goose-stepping across The Great Dictator; Mel Brooks’ twinkle-toed Nazis in The Producers; Roberto Benigni’s overcooked Oscar schmaltz Life is Beautiful.
Taika Watiti takes a big, wild swing with Jojo Rabbit — an audacious piece of Third Reich whimsy that almost definitely shouldn’t work as well as it does, considering it’s about a boy whose imaginary best friend is Hitler (played by Watiti himself, happily mugging in a paintbrush mustache and khaki pantaloons).
Ten-year-old Jojo (disarming newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) fervently wishes to become the best little fascist he can be; a dutiful murderer of Jews and faithful defender of the Motherland. But at a youth camp helmed by a swaggering one-eyed officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his blithely psychotic underlings (which include Rebel Wilson and Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen), he quickly finds himself at the bottom of the class, unable to kill even a lowly chicken.
When an unfortunate explosives incident lands him in the hospital, his mother, Rosie (a droll Scarlett Johannson), insists he pulls back on his homicidal duties and stay home more. It’s during a break from one of those reassuring pep talks with his good buddy Adolph that he discovers the secret she’s been keeping in the attic: a young Jewish stowaway (Leave No Trace’s great Thomasin McKenzie) who tells him her name is Elsa, and promises him that giving her up will mean mutually assured destruction for her and his already-diminished family. With so few other social options to turn to, Jojo begins to spend more time with his captive — the better to learn the answer to burning questions like “Where does the queen Jew lay the eggs,” and perhaps dismantle a few other ideas.
Through a certain lens, some viewers will undoubtedly see what Watiti is doing here as a kind of smug, misguided Wes Anderson-ization of a subject that has no statute of limitations for satire. (Though Veep creator Armando Iannucci did something similar last year with The Death of Stalin, to largely positive reviews). But the New Zealand-born director, who managed to turn 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok into one of the most winningly absurd entries in the superhero canon, finds such strange, sweet humor in his storytelling that the movie somehow maintains its ballast, even when the tone inevitably (and it feels, necessarily) shifts.
If Jojo‘s ending wobbles a little and goes on too long, the final scene is a beauty; a sort of joyful affirmation that isn’t so much sentimental as it is universal. Heil Taika for trying, and pulling it off. A–