I don’t get to type the letters “Disney Hitler comedy” very often, and so I was pretty stoked about Jojo Rabbit, which has just about everything you look for in a funny movie: a fresh idea, swagger, a strong point of view, and gifted comic actors such as Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson. One element it’s missing, however, is that it isn’t funny.
Nazism was not only horrifying, it was also absurd, with its bolted-together mythologies, its crackpot conspiracy theories, and its grandiose vision of a thousand-year reign, a goal it missed by 988. Remember how easy it was to turn Adolf’s Downfall bunker rant into a joke? Even in Germany, where it has generally been considered taboo to joke about the Third Reich, comedies such as Look Who’s Back (2015) and Mein Fuehrer: The Really Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler (2007) have made Hitler the central figure.
Hitler provides rich potential for comedy, yet despite trying really hard, I didn’t laugh once in Jojo Rabbit. Do two or three half-chuckles count? Not really. Johannes, or Jojo (a wide-eyed kid named Roman Griffin Davis), is a fully indoctrinated Hitler Youth, complete with the uniform suggesting Fascist Cub Scouts and a ridiculous fear of Jews. Early scenes having him romping through training exercises with his fellow Aryan middle-schoolers under the watchful gaze of a dissolute German officer (Rockwell is ideal for this part) who lets slip that the war is about to be lost, so nothing much matters. It’s Berlin in 1945. Assisting him is a Teutonic wench (Rebel Wilson) who reminds me of the lady concentration-camp commandant in Seven Beauties. Things get a bit confusing for Jojo when he’s asked to demonstrate his master-race cruelty by wringing the neck of a rabbit. He can’t do it. The kids mock him as a timid, frightened little thing — Jojo Rabbit. He’s so frustrated that he blows himself up with a grenade, because playing with live hand grenades is the kind of thing Nazi kids do, I guess. It’s 1945, anything goes.
Jojo recovers slowly, thanks to his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, played by the writer-director of the movie, Taika Waititi. Hitler is (mostly) a genial sort who pops out behind beams and has dinner with Jojo to offer fond advice and reminders about the perfidy of the Jews. Jojo and his mom (Scarlett Johansson in hausfrau mode) are making do without the man of the house, who is off fighting in Italy but hasn’t been heard from in two years. To add to all of his sources of confusion, Jojo discovers there’s a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) living in a secret room upstairs.
By the time this setup is established, though, the movie, adapted from an obscure 2006 novel called Caging Skies, is running on fumes. Waititi (who energetically directed Thor: Ragnarok and is also known for the vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows) has enough ideas to fill out a Saturday Night Live sketch but can’t generate much in the way of narrative momentum. The middle of the movie sags, carefully laying out for those of us who didn’t know this the case for why Duh Choos aren’t so bad, and don’t even have horns, as Jojo imagined. Johansson is stretched well beyond her comic capabilities as the imaginative and daring mother. The appearances of imaginary friend Adolf grow less frequent, and more tiresome.
Disney, which picked up the film by buying the art-house studio that made it, Fox Searchlight, plainly doesn’t know what to do with it and has been advertising it with posters featuring the line “an anti-hate satire.” No, really? The film itself is similarly a bit unsure of itself. Far from being a full-on comic attack on Nazism, it turns cloyingly cute, even sweet, when Jojo and the girl in the attic get to know each other. One of the Nazis does something noble and heroic. Note the differences with Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin; the Soviet satire stayed with its concept throughout, keeping us locked in the viewpoint of its brainwashed lackeys. Jojo, on the other hand, learns that Germany isn’t doing so well in the war and that Jews are people too, in a series of painfully on-the-nose lessons about tolerance that seem to ride in from a much more earnest comedy, possibly one made for nine-year-olds. This Disney movie turns out to be more of a Disney movie than it at first appears.