Jojo Rabbit's softening of Nazism is the last thing we need in a best picture winner
This article is part of Esquire's Oscars series in which we consider if each Best Picture nominee at 2020 Academy Awards should or should not take home the night's highest honor. Read the rest of the Oscars series here.
With What We Do in the Shadows, Thor: Ragnarok, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Taika Waititi established himself as an energetic, occasionally uproarious filmmaker. Disappointingly, his latest is a misstep of colossal proportions, a project so fundamentally misguided and terribly realized that it’s difficult to fathom its existence in the first place, much less that it’s being considered alongside great movies from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Bong Joon-ho, Greta Gerwig, and Quentin Tarantino. From grating beginning to cloying end, this coming-of-age saga about a young wannabe Nazi is a fiasco that mixes ahistorical ignorance, cornball humor, derivative style and laughable bathos to mind-boggling effect.
Like Life is Beautiful if Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust hit had imagined the SS as clowns, Jojo Rabbit is the story of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a precocious adolescent who desperately wants to join the Hitler Youth, and who spends his days and nights conversing about evil Jews and the glory of the Third Reich with his make-believe BFF Adolf Hitler, here embodied by Waititi as a hyperactive, heil-crazy cartoon intended to come across as a loveably funny genocidal madman. Spoiler alert: he’s not, and the fact that he’s “imaginary” doesn’t help Jojo Rabbit sell this Führer—against all decent taste or basic sanity—as endearing. The same goes for Jojo himself, who earns himself the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” for failing to kill a bunny at the behest of Hitler Youth bullies—a sign that, though he spews vileness like a dutiful little hatemonger, he’s actually, deep down, a good person.
Waititi doesn’t stop sympathetically humanizing Nazis there. At every turn, Jojo Rabbit—whose title sounds like the name of some cuddly children’s plaything (say, a Nazi-esque Teddy Ruxpin)—is filled with virtuous Germans. Jojo’s mom Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is a heroic resistance fighter; the boy’s camp director Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) is a flamboyant closeted man; his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) is an archetypal pudgy sidekick who, like Jojo, is enthusiastic about the Reich without having any sincerely nasty convictions; and Klenzendorf’s right-hand woman Fräulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) is a buffoon who is meant to be charmingly loopy. Sure, we get a couple of scenes with a mean Gestapo agent (Stephen Merchant), but Waititi’s film portrays WWII-era Germany as a place populated almost exclusively by likable, honorable folk.
That’s enough to make Jojo Rabbit a lie, and a detestable one at that, especially in this day and age of rising white nationalism at home and abroad. Worse still is that its primary plot involves Jojo’s discovery of teen Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in a secret cubby in his apartment. Jojo is initially horrified by this revelation, and the idea that his mom Rosie has stashed her there. However, his ensuing relationship with Elsa—full of oh-so-witty bits in which the girl pokes fun at —soon turns romantic. He therefore sets about protecting his beloved Anne Frank proxy from capture, culminating in a heartwarming finale in which Jojo has a change of heart and rejects intolerance and, also, his make-believe Hitler, who’s ceremoniously booted out a window like a Looney Tunes character.
Jojo Rabbit bills itself as an “anti-hate satire,” which epitomizes its empty-headedness; you don’t need to exaggerate hate in order to expose it as bad, because hate is inherently bad, no satiric exaggeration required. Moreover, its main uplifting point—that prejudiced people will learn the error of their ways if they just get to know the objects of their scorn—is both debatable in the abstract, and wholly inapplicable to Nazi Germany. Nazis lived next door to them, worked with them, socialized with them, frequented their shops, saw them on the streets, and welcomed them into their families. Yet that familiarity didn’t stop them from also ostracizing them, demonizing them, and turning them in for mass extermination. That’s the bedrock truth about Nazi Germany, and Jojo Rabbit’s desire to conjure an alterna-reality in which everyone in Nazi Germany was kind, funny, and noble turns out to be the same sort of “very fine people on both sides” hogwash peddled by the USA's current commander-in-chief.
Suffice it to say, in the face of such ill-conceived nonsense, humor dies a swift and painful death. Waititi stages his action with colorful symmetrical compositions and playful soundtrack cuts (such as a German rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” to underscore the Beatlemania-like appeal of Nazism), which gives the proceedings the air of a cheap Wes Anderson knock-off. The writer/director/co-star strains hard to up the farcicality quotient in order to have the film play like a sweet modern comedy about a foolish goofball who eventually alters his unwise course. It’s a common quirky-indie mold, equal parts Rushmore and your average Will Ferrell effort, the problem being that Jojo Rabbit is grappling with titanic real world events that aren’t comfortably molded into silly feel-good pap.
Despite its nominal message about turning hate into love, Jojo Rabbit is a work that normalizes Nazis, and thus Nazism, and thus intolerance in general, by alternately saying that it either doesn’t exist, or is cute and amusing and powerless in the face of aw-shucks kiddie compassion. That makes it astoundingly wrong about WWII, about humanity, and also, of course, about today’s alt-right-infested climate upon which the film has been designed to comment. Putting it in the same company as the rest of this year’s Best Picture candidates—especially the epic The Irishman, the revealing Marriage Story, and the vivacious Little Women—is absurd; it’s wholesale cluelessness makes even a second-rate nominee like Joker seem downright incisive (about social alienation, xenophobia and fanaticism) by comparison.