This is either the worst time for a movie like Jojo Rabbit or the best time. I lean toward the latter. I’m perfectly willing to concede that the film may come across as gauche in the coming years, but in November 2019—as an irreverently comic middle finger to idiotic, irrational tribalism—wow, does it feel good.
Set in a small town in Germany in the waning days of World War II, the movie centers on Jojo (the criminally cute Roman Griffin Davis), a 10-year-old boy so convinced of Nazi propaganda that his imaginary friend is Hitler himself (played by Taika Waititi, who also adapted the movie from Christine Leunens’ novel and directs). When Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (a touching and very funny Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish teen in their attic (Thomasin McKenzie, also excellent), he’s forced to consider if the ideology he’s swallowed makes any sense when actual human beings are involved.
Even that description, I realize, makes the movie sound trite, like a cringe-inducing miscalculation in the tradition of Life is Beautiful (which, for the record, I thought was fine). If Waititi’s film is stronger, it’s because he prioritizes rebelliousness over sentimentality. There are moving moments, to be sure—including a powerhouse scene in which Rosie, smearing her face with charcoal to evoke a beard, pretends to speak to Jojo as if she were his father, who is off at war. But mostly the movie feels like a zany prank being pulled on a dictatorial teacher by the smartest kid in the room. (In that way, Jojo Rabbit resembles Spike Lee’s brilliantly brazen Klan “comedy,” BlacKkKlansman.)
As a director, Waititi shows the same knack for colorful, comic chaos that he brought to Thor: Ragnarok and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Jojo Rabbit is packed with visual gags that are both amusing and pointed, as when Jojo is tasked with putting up posters of Hitler’s face around town. Wiping his hand back and forth over them to get them to stick, we see Waititi’s maniacally grinning face change expression each time Jojo’s hand goes by. Then, after the last swipe, we see the visage of the real Hitler, drawn from an actual propaganda poster. Bits like that make you laugh even as they give you pause; they keep the giggles from frittering into frivolousness.
This sensibility is established right at the movie’s start, when The Beatles can be heard singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German over archival images of ecstactic crowds at Nazi rallies. It’s a wild melange in which pop fanaticism merges with fanaticism of a much darker kind. Waititi’s inspired performance works similarly. Yes, he’s mostly making fun of one of history’s greatest monsters—portraying Hitler as a petulant, insecure child (sound familiar?)—but there are two moments when he becomes alarmingly angry at Jojo and the performance turns deadly serious. Spitting out vitriol with the ferocity that can be seen in actual footage of Hitler’s speeches, he’s scary within the context of the scene, but also because we know that such hatefulness swayed a nation.
Living in a country that, at the moment, seems similarly swayed, it can feel almost revolutionary to sit in a packed theater for Jojo Rabbit and laugh alongside others. If only it were that easy. Jojo Rabbit is far from a revolutionary act, yet in the way it hilariously thumbs its nose at ignorance and sweetly depicts the opening of one small mind, the movie at least makes resistance seem possible.