Review: 'Jojo Rabbit'

The latest from Taika Waititi gleefully skewers the absurdities of Nazism
ENEMY LINES: In 'Jojo Rabbit,' a young Hitler Youth recruit is caught between fantasy and reality.

Some people are going to hate Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit like they haven't hated anything since Life is Beautiful. Understandably, some will argue that Nazis are never funny under any circumstances, no matter what ridiculous figures they cut with their rites, their idiot prejudices and their too-cool Hugo Boss uniforms.

Mel Brooks, who dodged German fire at the Battle of the Bulge, was always certain Nazis make for comedy gold. Even in these nervous times, can't we accept Brooks' judgement?

Jojo Rabbit is the diary of a wimpy Nazi kid. Trying to negotiate the usual societal absurdities, as well as the heightened absurdities of the Reich. In a small village in 1944, young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is trying to be a good little Hitler Youth. But he's a thorough reject, drawing a portion of the scorn doled out by the Jugend's scoutmaster, an invalided-out Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, great).

At camp, Jojo shares a tent with his equally beta-male pal (Archie Yates), laying awake and telling scary stories about Jews: "I hear they smell like Brussels sprouts."

Then comes a test of manhood: kill a bunny rabbit with his bare hands in front of his fellow Jugenders. He fails. Dejected, he is visited by his imaginary friend, Der Fuhrer (Waititi in contact lenses and shaky mustache), who gives him fatherly advice. The boy has a speculative idea of Hitler, imagining him as a smoker, which he wasn't, and a meat eater who dines on yummy stuffed roast unicorn heads. Adolph tells Jojo to buck up, advising him to be the rabbit—faster than anyone. Jojo then bolts to the vanguard of a footrace, snatches a potato-masher hand grenade from a bigger boy and tosses it. It bounces off a tree and blows up in his face.

With a face stitched up and scarred, he's an even bigger reject to all but his mom Rosie—a very relaxed and appealing Scarlett Johansson, with a buttery Marlene Dietrich accent. The convalescing Jojo learns that there's another woman living at his home. Mom is secretly Anne-Franking a friend of the family in the attic. Young Elsa corners the boy with the Hitler Youth knife he wasn't supposed to lose, but soon they become pals. For laughs, she schools simple Jojo on the Jews: Do they hang upside like bats when they sleep? Can they read each others' minds? As Elsa, Tomasin MacKenzie is consistently unsentimental and un-self-pitying.

Both Elsa and Rosie's amused solicitude with this backward, fatherless kid is charming.

Moreover, they set up a border between the realm of the preposterous macho Nazis and the far more mysterious and interesting world of women. As in John Boorman's Hope and Glory, all the comfort and intelligence is on one side and all the pain and stupidity is on the other. To add some yang to this yin, there is a female Nazi, Frauline Rahmi (Rebel Wilson), who has birthed more than a dozen babies for the Reich; Wilson suggests with her posture that she can't sit comfortably after all that parturition.

This uproariously satirical version of a quite serious novel might be modeled on Carol Reed's film, The Fallen Idol (1948) in the looming staircases and the expressionism of the boy's world collapsing around him. Like Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, it's certainly something you could take a smart older child to see. Certain aspects are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Mother Night. This elegantly turned if sometimes episodic comedy is as Blaise Pascal described life: the last act is bloody, no matter how pleasant the play has been.

There's no comfortable way out of the tale, and the rocky, final 15 minutes will give Jojo Rabbit's haters ammo. Still, maybe nothing was as funny about the Nazis as their scurrying, ignominious end.

Jojo Rabbit
PG-13; 108 Mins
CineArts, Palo Alto & Santana Row
3Below Theaters & Lounge, San Jose

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