When Roberto Begnini’s “Life is Beautiful” was released back in 1998, many critics were disturbed by how the film trivialized the holocaust via its clownish, joke-making protagonist. However, if that movie managed to irk a few, and I have to mention that there also are plenty of fans of that Oscar-winning film, then they have no idea what’s in store for them when they catch Taika Waititi’s misbegotten “Jojo Rabbit.”
Set in 1945, as the second world war is coming down to its last legs and the Nazis are all but defeated, ”Jojo Rabbit” has Waititi setting his sights on the story of Jojo, a 10-year-old German boy whose imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Waititi in a risky, but at times funny, turn). Jojo’s infatuation with the Third Reich extends to his bedroom walls being splattered with propaganda posters of his hero.
His mother (a miscast Scarlett Johansson) has to contend with a son who is starting to become more and more radicalized by Nazi propaganda, to the point where he attends a Nazi summer camp to sharpen his hatred. The leaders of this camp are a wacky SS Officer (Sam Rockwell, always great playing the asshole) and his assistant (Rebel Wilson).
After a freak accident at the camp, Jojo is sent back home where he learns that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie) inside a storage wall. At first hesitant to approach the girl due to her Judaic roots, Jojo becomes friendlier by the day and realizes that the Jewish propaganda being spewed by the Third Reich may not be truthful at all.
The brand of comedy being used here by Waititi is odd and, at times, very irresponsible. At a time when the word “Nazi” is being used left and right for political advantage and its meaning stripped of its history, “Jojo Rabbit” accentuates this disturbing trend by giving a smiling voice and face to it. There is no doubt clever wordplay at work here, but after 15 minutes of anti-semitism being played for laughs I was ready to tap out. What’s even more disturbing was the rousing crowd reaction at the film’s Princess of Wales premiere last night at TIFF. You have no idea how it is to be surrounded by thousands of people laughing at jokes specifically darted at Jews.
To make matters worse, there’s a failed bid near the film’s climax which has Waititi converting the boy’s anti-semitism into a redemptive and all-too-neatly devised conversion to the morally clean side. It’s also the sort of last-minute string pulling that rings hollow and false. Although on paper “Jojo Rabbit” feels audacious and risk-taking, it ends up feeling one-note, and the thing it most wants to avoid: conventional. [C-]