Movie review: Anti-Nazi satire ‘Jojo Rabbit’ has plenty of bark, but no bite

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In Taika Waititi's new film, "Jojo Rabbit," billed as an "anti-hate satire," the Maori-Jewish New Zealand filmmaker himself plays Adolf Hitler. But that seems to both the beginning and the end of the joke. This Hitler is an imaginary friend to little Hitler Youth member Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), and Waititi's silly, irreverent performance takes the pomp and vigor out of the blustering Fuhrer, declawing the towering 20th century figure of hate. However, in doing so, he declaws his own satire, too. "Jojo Rabbit," based on the book "Caging Skies" by Christina Leunens, has plenty of bark, but no bite to back it up. It's not quite a satire because it's trying hard to be heartwarming at the same time, all against the backdrop of the waning days of World War II in an unnamed German city.

Little Jojo, short for Johannes, is an eager Hitler Youth participant who sets off excitedly for a training weekend led by the eccentric one-eyed Captain K (Sam Rockwell) and his assistants (Alfie Allen and Rebel Wilson). Despite his enthusiasm and motivational affirmations supplied by his fantastical chats with Der Fuhrer, Jojo learns the hard way about the cruelty of older kids, earning the nickname Jojo Rabbit when he's unable to kill a bunny. Horrifically scarred by a grenade accident, Jojo returns home to convalesce with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), and wonder about his place in the Reich.

Rosie, left alone to care for her son during wartime, is the wisest adult in Jojo's life, not that he'd recognize it. One day he discovers a secret compartment in the walls of his dead sister Inge's room, and inside that he finds one of Inge's old friends, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jew. This discovery rocks Jojo's world, and his understanding of his mother, of Jews, of women, of other Nazi men and of himself. All the while he wrestles with his inner moral compass, embodied by this raucous, wide-eyed, ridiculous Hitler.

Wes Anderson seems a clear influence on Waititi's visual style here, offering a sense of arch artifice and highly stylized cool with vibrant, graphic production and costume design captured in locked-off shots and horizontal pans. Waititi sets a bouncy tone for the performances, which are far more loose and playful than the usually mannered, ironic Andersonian characters. On one end of the spectrum, the perpetually absurd Wilson embodies the full comic potential of a brainless Nazi follower. On the other, the exceptionally gifted and sincere McKenzie brings out the full heartbreak of the violent reality.

The setting and content of "Jojo Rabbit" are certainly hot-button issues. It's not often that we see one of the world's most lovable filmmakers goose-stepping in a toothbrush mustache while offering up ironic anti-Semitism. But Waititi, who adapted the screenplay as well, lets the controversial subject matter take the place of social commentary. There's something to be said for piercing power with humor, for rubbing our faces in the horrible thing and making us confront it with an amusing tonic that helps the medicine go down. But after several story bumps and roads not taken, Waititi opts for the path of least resistance. At the end of "Jojo Rabbit," you're just left wondering what the point of it all was.

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