Can we possibly face tragedy without humor? I do not believe so. Humor is our most powerful coping mechanism. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of comedy is its ability to simultaneously convey truth and absurdity. Taika Waititi artfully balances a blend of genres in his latest directorial effort, which simultaneously aims for us to laugh at the absurdities of horrific ideology, and asks for us to seriously consider the impressionable nature of youth.
The last thing we needed in cinemas this year was another starkly realistic portrayal of wartime violence. There is a plethora of war films that gravely and earnestly depict the harsh realities of conflict. We rarely find ourselves able to find hilarity in the despicable nature of our adversaries, even though it is easiest to make fun of those we have sharp differences with. The Nazi propaganda is horrifying, but also easily comedic. What is distinguishably horrible can also be horribly funny, and the beauty of “JoJo Rabbit” is its ability to transcend horror with comedy. Our modern free society, which is the clear opposite of Nazi Germany, allows comedians the ability to push what is acceptable right to the very edge. “JoJo Rabbit” doesn’t reach the edge, but it has enough to ruffle some feathers. Is it really so impressive to be morally virtuous about the Holocaust? It’s disappointing that so many people fail to see the hypocritical nature of condemning comedic creativity when they claim to support freedom of expression.
With that out of the way, “JoJo Rabbit” is a highly enjoyable dramedy with a surprising amount of heart. If I can laugh and cry, and find myself emotionally invested in the main characters over the course of two hours, then I consider the film a success. One of the most important aspects of writing a review is to consider the goals of the artist and to determine whether or not he or she achieved them. Waititi achieves what he sets out to accomplish, which is to inject his own brand of humor into a serious topic without being intentionally controversial. “JoJo Rabbit” is cute and serious at the same time. It’s a joy to watch.
Roman Griffin Davis gives a fantastic performance as the titular character. No, his last name isn’t “Rabbit,” and I promise the title will make sense about 20 minutes into the film. This is Roman’s first-ever on-screen performance, and he absolutely owns every minute of screen time. If he weren’t 10 years old, I would name him as a serious contender for an Oscar. Archie Yates, the other young standout in this film, gives a terrifically humorous performance as JoJo’s best friend, Yorki. They are absolutely adorable when in each other’s company, and it’s just astonishing that both young actors are in their first film here. I completely bought into their naivete.
Thomasin McKenzie is fantastic as Jewish girl Elsa, who is being hidden away by JoJo’s mother, Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson. Scarlett gives one of the best female performances of the year, conveying a great sense of maternity, humor, and subtlety. We know early on that Rosie is different than many of the other Germans in the town, and she hardly takes JoJo’s Nazi infatuation seriously. She genuinely cares for the life of her son as well as Elsa. We learn that her husband has been in Italy fighting in the war for several years, and she seems to have done a fabulous job of raising her son on her own.
In lieu of his father, JoJo has developed an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler to keep him company. He often (comedically) turns to Adolf to talk through sticky situations and seek out advice. Taika Waititi plays Adolf himself, and wonderfully pokes fun at the absurdity of the historical figure. He does channel some of the tyrannical insanity later in the film. When even the imaginary character has an arc of some sort, you know that real thought has been put into the craft of “JoJo Rabbit.”
Speaking of the craft, the cinematography is absolutely stunning. I haven’t seen a film so bright and joyful in some time, and I found it perfectly paired with the tone of the film. Waititi has clear command over the tone, and other than with a final action sequence, he never misses a step. Even that, though, is forgivable after the following final scenes. Waititi also proves that he can expertly create tension in a crucial scene involving Elsa, JoJo, and the Gestapo. The editing is especially important to the success of “JoJo Rabbit,” and I must applaud Tom Eagles for sewing together contrasting scenes so seamlessly.
The only major flaw in “JoJo Rabbit” is Rebel Wilson. The film could have easily done without her five minutes of over-the-top hysteria. Other than that, “JoJo Rabbit” made me the happiest I’ve been in a theatre all year long. Comedy is a personal art form though, so I understand why this may not appeal to everyone. For myself, I appreciated the intelligence and humor that Waititi had to offer.