I really didn’t like “JoJo Rabbit,” director Taika Waititi‘s World War II satire about a Nazi boy (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi). I didn’t find the material offensive, but the movie fails across the board as the satirical black comedy it strives so hard to be.
Jojo is a lonely German boy, committed to the Nazi party with a blind nationalism. His world view is turned upside down when he discovers his kind single mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic. Lessons in life and love are learned, but this wannabe Wes Anderson rip-off tries too hard be too cute and is more annoying than thoughtful.
It’s okay to be in love with your own art, but Waititi’s arrogant, cloying script and filmmaking style feel braggadocious with an emphasis on too much style over substance. There are a handful of ironically-scored, slow-motion, painfully artsy scenes that cinema loving hipsters will adore (including the worst one that is set in a swimming pool) that made me want to pull my hair out in frustration from the gleefully flamboyant visuals. Most directors attempting to make an Anderson style movie usually end up with a disappointing product.
Hitler is portrayed as a goofball idiot, which may have been controversial decades ago but feels like a half-hearted, attention grabbing stunt in 2019. It’s not very funny and burns out quickly. The focus is on absurdity and irreverent humor, but the dark comedy comes across as indifferent at best. There are gags about weapon mishaps and book burnings, and Hitler speaks in modern slang with an exaggerated German accent and prances around like a fool. I’m all in favor of poking fun at the Führer, but this supposed “satire” is dumbed down to the point it should insult audiences who pay to watch it.
It’s essential for the lead character to carry a story like this, but Jojo is reminiscent of that one know-it-all kid in your grade school class who was the irritating teacher’s pet. It’s not Davis’s fault, as he gives a fine performance. It’s that nobody here is likeable, and that’s a problem. (Except for Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain who runs a Hitler Youth camp; too bad he didn’t get his own spin-off movie).
There’s a half-hearted coming of age story thrown in the mix, but it doesn’t fit well with the overall absurdity and irreverent humor that drives the film. The whimsy doesn’t feel inappropriate, but it’s off-putting and takes away from the real heart and deeper meaning of the story.
“Jojo Rabbit” could’ve been something truly special if Waititi didn’t insist on spending the majority of his time winking at the audience. It’s the goofy shtick that torpedoes this film.