At the end of 1942’s Now, Voyager, Bette Davis turns to Paul Henreid, and utters the now classic line, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” I was reminded of that line when I caught Jojo Rabbit just before it left the theaters. Writer/director/actor Taika Waititi reaches for the stars here, and while he doesn’t always make it that far, he at least makes it to the moon on a regular basis.
An absurdist comedy about Hitler, war, hate, and anti-Semitism in particular isn’t normally the basis of belly laughs. Of course, one thinks of 1968’s The Producers and especially its “hit” number, “Springtime for Hitler.” That was outrageous on so many levels just 23 years after the war ended. Perhaps enough time has passed for most of us to enjoy a Hitler send-up now, especially since Waititi adheres to Producers writer/director Mel Brooks’ example of comedy (especially extreme comedy) being the best revenge: ““The only way to get even with anybody is to ridicule them,” said Brooks. “So, the only real way I could get even with Hitler and company was to bring them down with laughter.”
To describe exactly where the laughs come from would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that Waititi as Hitler, the imaginary childhood friend of the young lead, externally visualizing the young man’s coming to terms with life as a preteen and Hitler Youth, puts out lines and character readings that are as funny as anything in any recent film. Those lines and situations are a mashup of 1940’s dialogue, current dialogue, childish thoughts, and precocious thinking that is far beyond the scope of a 10-year-old. It’s a tightrope walk, and it occasionally falters, usually because joke number four isn’t quite as funny as joke number 3. But the laughs come fast enough to make you forget the occasional stumble; the absurdist scenario of a moody, rowdy, and occasionally ridiculous Fuhrer can apparently go a long way. The acting by Waititi is both over-the-top and right on the nose. In a less competitive year, Waititi’s performance might have been Oscar-nominated.
Aside from a never-should-work-but-it-somehow-does central concept, the film sails along on its casting, with some absurdities as resonant as the imaginary Hitler. Those absurdities include the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell, whose character manages to begin as a dark joke and eventually becomes a trusted figure, and then…well, you’ll have to see the film. His character’s arc might have been literally unbelievable in another director’s or actor’s hands, but here it helps hold the film together and grant it the humanity the film has been seeking all along. Rebel Wilson has a role as equally ridiculous at first, but she doesn’t change, which makes sense on one level, but is disappointing on another. Wilson is a tough comic persona to keep under control. Like Bill Murray, Wilson is often in another film of her own within a film. Waititi manages to keep those comic energies focused within this film, but barely.
More attention, however, has been focused on the two leads, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, and Oscar-nominated (Best Supporting Actress) Scarlett Johansson. Davis is good, and seems to get better as the film goes along. He’s probably got a great career ahead of him. Truth be told, however, his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) steals every scene he’s in.
The heart of the film is Johansson, who had somehow been forgotten as one of our finest young actresses. She is smart, warm, and funny as the mother, and provides the soft and creamy center of the film, keeping things firmly on the ground and preparing us for the turn to serious toward the end. Last year was a banner year for her, with a Best Actress nomination for her stellar work in Marriage Story in addition to her nomination for this role. I hope it isn’t too long before we realize that she is one of the best actresses working today, and that we put our awareness of her talent before our awareness of her beauty.
As moving as the film often is, it really doesn’t present anything especially new or fresh thematically. War is bad—check. Hate is bad—check. Once we meet and connect with folks, it’s less difficult to hate them—check. What is new is the deep dive Waititi takes into our experience of Hitler, using the Brooks approach of humor, but getting closer to the historical figure by having him not be represented on stage, but presented as Hitler himself on screen, even with the distancing effects of humor and the active re-imagining of the German leader by a very imaginative child. It’s a bold move, and it works.
I am old enough to have a conflicted reaction here. My father was a POW in WWII, and the long-term effects of that experience had a direct and negative impact and me and my family. (I often joke—with a serious lining—that I blame all my problems on Hitler.) Plus, as a student of history (and especially the war), I am aware of what the real Hitler released upon Europe and the world, and am appalled to my soul with his hatred of the Jews. Getting me to laugh at this particular expression of Hitler is a triumph of sorts, and perhaps an indicator that we are far enough away from the mid-twentieth century to look at this with new eyes. I can’t completely replace my old perspective with this new absurdist one. But I could put t it on hold for 108 minutes.
Waititi’s reach exceeds his grasp at times, but with Thor:Ragnarok and now this film, Waititi has established himself as a smart and accomplished comic sensibility willing to go to great lengths for his comic vision, and talented enough to make the stretching worth it.