Friday 17 January 2020

JoJo Rabbit review: A blazing, bonkers black comedy

4 stars

Honest film: Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, and Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit
Honest film: Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi, and Scarlett Johansson in Jojo Rabbit

Chris Wasser

You don’t see this sort of thing every day. When Taika Waititi — the singular, New Zealand filmmaker, behind Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the hilarious, Thor: Ragnarok — was asked if he had hit the books ahead of his portrayal of Adolf Hitler, his answer was simple.

“I had no interest in actually putting in the effort or putting in the research,” said Waititi, “because I just didn’t think he deserved it.”

Nice response. It’s indicative of what we’ve come to admire about a man who’s used to stepping outside the box. Not surprisingly, Jojo Rabbit — a blazing, bonkers satire that reimagines the horrors of childhood in Nazi Germany — has divided critics, some of whom took issue with the film’s subversive handling of its subject matter. That was to be expected. But I must say, I got on rather well with Waititi’s storybook depiction of World War II.

Roman Griffin Davis is Johannes ‘Jojo’ Betzler, our wide-eyed German protagonist, who wants nothing more than to fight for his country, just like his old man (who may or may not be alive). Armed with his wits, his enthusiasm and his imaginary pal — a childish, idiotic version of Hitler (Waititi, hamming up the ridiculousness throughout), who offers both terrible advice, and cigarettes — our boy heads off to Hitler Youth training camp. While there, after a nasty run-in with teenagers, who tease him after he refuses to kill a rabbit, poor Jojo almost blows himself up with a hand grenade.

Following a lengthy stint in hospital, Jojo (now sporting a limp and some facial scarring) returns home to his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and takes up a spot of menial propaganda work under Captain Klenzendorf (a reliably brilliant, Sam Rockwell). Imaginary Hitler is still giving him pep talks, too.

Meanwhile, Rosie is against the war. She lost a daughter to influenza and doesn’t appear to be all that upset that her husband has ceased contact. Oh, and she’s also hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the attic.

When young Jojo discovers Elsa for himself, he is horrified and considers handing her over to the authorities. Eventually, he is convinced that Elsa might be useful to keep around. You can see where this is going.

Not so much a spoof, but instead, a brilliantly mapped-out satire with a brain and a heart, Jojo Rabbit cuts things pretty close, relying on scathing wit and black comedy to soften the blow of its bleak, historical setting.

It’ll annoy some, that’s for sure. But it’ll also melt hearts. Funny, sweet and surprisingly sincere, Waititi’s film — based on the novel, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens — somehow manages to find a winning balance between its bold humour and the harrowing, real-life scenario in which it unfolds.

Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is a wee delight, carrying much of this peculiar yet triumphant picture on his shoulders. It’s through Jojo’s innocent eyes that we witness one of the darkest moments in modern history, and that, right there, is Jojo Rabbit’s unique selling point.

Thomasin McKenzie, too, is terrific, and the kids are in good company. Sam Rockwell works hard as a Nazi officer, who may not be as committed to the cause as you’d think.

And then there is Scarlet Johansson, who, though sparsely used, is as wonderful here as she is in Marriage Story.

Rosie is the mum that every youngster could have done with throughout such scary and uncertain times, and Johansson’s charming, charismatic performance brightens up Waititi’s film at every turn.

Yep, there is a wholesomeness to this joint that I wasn’t expecting.

Oh, and Waititi makes for a hilarious Hitler (there’s something I never thought I’d write). A strange yet wonderful little film.

Cert: 12A

Herald

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