Goodness knows my role here, dear reader, is not to tell you what you want to hear, nor tell you what you need to hear (I'm assuming you have parents, spouses and good friends who are up for that task). All that said, my role is to inform you of what's in store when it comes to how you spend your hard-earned cash and a couple of hours of your life at the cinema. With that preamble, I'm sad to report that Jojo Rabbit is a soul-dragging bit of binary bilge that has a jolly good time while traipsing over someone's grief. I just don't think the Holocaust is ripe for mining comedy gold. War? Maybe. Authoritarianism? Absolutely. Genocide? Count me out. It's entirely possible that my distaste for this film is generational. Having buried two parents in Arlington National Cemetery, my guess is that older audiences (me included) may find Jojo Rabbit less funny than younger audiences. Who knows? Decades from now, someone will undoubtedly make a comedy film about 9/11, and Gen Xers will have to wrestle with being asked to laugh at that tragedy (I'm relieved to know that I won't be around for that challenge).
To be sure, Jojo Rabbit is dividing audiences. I witnessed some rather testy, finger-wagging debates erupting seconds after the lights came up at the film's world premiere at this September's Toronto International Film Festival; and the volume of those agitations continued to build as the audience snaked out to the cinema's lobby. And the gap was equally distinct among critics: USA Today's Brian Truitt was effusive about Jojo Rabbit's "quirky charm," calling the film "brilliant." Variety's Owen Gleiberman, on the other hand, called Jojo Rabbit "a studiously conventional movie dressed up in a self-congratulatory 'daring' of its look!-let's-prank-the-Nazis cachet." The real stunner, following its premiere, came when TIFF audiences voted to grant Jojo Rabbit the much-coveted People's Choice Award, traditionally given to Oscar-bound contenders (Green Book, Silver Linings Playbook, The King's Speech, etc.). But now comes Jojo Rabbit's real test, when the film goes wide (it opens across North America, including Boise, on Friday, Nov. 8), I'm fairly certain that it will find equal measures of love and loathe. I fall into the latter camp.
For the uninitiated, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy who lives with his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) in the fictional German village of Falkenheim while World War II rages. Jojo is anxious to join the Deutsches Jungvolk (aka Hitler Youth) where he is mentored by a cadre of zany Nazi officers (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and others). But Jojo's real affection is reserved for a life-sized imaginary friend: a clownish apparition of Adolf Hitler (an over-the-top performance from writer/director Taika Waititi). Among all of the film's rip-roaring hijinks, there's a Jewish girl hiding in Jojo's attic, Hitler Youth giggling at book burnings...and oh yes, there are pesky corpses of Jewish adults hanging in the village square.
"I know that there's a sort of thing auteurs like to say about their films: 'Ooh, the film speaks for itself,'" Waititi told the TIFF audience just prior to his film's premiere. "Well, if you don't get it, you're dumb! You'll get it. It's pretty simple."
With due respect, Mr. Waititi, I got it. Simple? Not a chance. But I get it. I also get the fact that Jojo Rabbit's promotional material attempts to align the film with Charlie Chaplin's 1940's classic, The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin himself satirized Hitler. But what Jojo Rabbit's publicists choose to exclude is that, in his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin expressed regret, writing that he would not have made The Great Dictator if he had known about the true extent of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.
"I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity," wrote Chaplin.
Indeed, there is a potent argument that by mocking Hitler, his acolytes are robbed of power. That said, comedy can't make amends for tragedy, and a Nazi-themed satire isn't any less offensive to the memory of 6 million victims of the Holocaust. Is anything truly out of bounds in the far-flung art of comedy? Probably not. But that doesn't mean Jojo Rabbit gets a pass.