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Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is disappointingly safe

 

Jojo Rabbit
directed by Taika Waititi

The Kiwi film-maker hams it up as Hitler but takes few risks in his satire of Nazi indoctrination.

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah for anyone to don baggy breeches, paste on the moustache and play der Führer. Yet this is exactly what Kiwi film-maker Taika Waititi – who is Māori and Jewish – has decided to do in his new film Jojo Rabbit. He plays a version of Adolf Hitler who appears as an imaginary friend and mentor to 10-year-old Nazi devotee Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). “Yeah, man! Heil Hitler,” he breezes with infectious camp. I fear, however, that having hit upon this one gag, Waititi decided against thinking up any others.

Jojo Rabbit is adapted from New Zealand-Belgian writer Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies. Where the book was maudlin and serious, Waititi has invented Jojo’s imaginary Adolf from scratch, and envisioned a Third Reich of Wes Anderson-style tweeness populated by dopes and halfwits. Stephen Merchant leads a trench-coated troupe of Gestapo, while Sam Rockwell plays the bumbling Commander K, leader of a Hitler Youth training camp where Rebel Wilson is uber-matron. There, it’s grenade throwing in the morning, anti-Semitic instruction in the afternoon and cosy book burnings by evening.

At home, however, Jojo has his Aryan convictions challenged when he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl – Anne Frank-style – in the attic of their house. She is played by Thomasin McKenzie and might be the best thing here: a forlorn but fierce figure, determined to get out and join the Resistance. When they first meet, Jojo instructs her to spill all of her Jewish secrets. “We’re like you, but human,” she replies with a twitch of a smile.

Jojo Rabbit has been marketed as an irreverent, excoriating comedy and an “anti-hate satire” – this tagline, in particular, stirring up unfair assumptions. Still, there is nothing here that has not been done before, done better, or done at the time. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks’ The Producers both featured campy führers; the Yugoslav film Tito and Me made better fun of a 10-year-old boy’s obsession with an autocrat; hell, even Indiana Jones could crack a joke about clichéd Gestapo hoods. And, by the way, what exactly is so provocative about hating Nazis?

I suspect that had Waititi not been bound to adapting a particular book, he might have been inclined to take a running kick at convention, bust through the strictures of good taste and do something shockingly transgressive and genuinely satirical.

Despite the significant changes Waititi has made to the source, he still must conform to its mopey and sincere trajectory, resulting in a sentimental and uneven movie that delivers an imaginary Hitler but doesn’t have much imagination. Jojo Rabbit is, at its core, trying to be a charmer and a heart-warmer: achingly correct, comfortably middlebrow, disappointingly safe.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.