Films have parodied the Nazis even while WWII raged, including everyone from Chaplin to The Three Stooges to Mel Brooks. Enter Taiki Waititi seemingly channeling Wes Anderson in JOJO RABBIT. Waititi turns up the trademark Anderson Twee barometer to 11 right from the outset. A ten year old Hitler Youth to be named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has an imaginary friend. And, he's not just your typical fanciful pal, but Hitler himself (Waititi). The Fake Fuhrer has a goofy grin and prances about like a reject from a Dresden burlesque show. The effect is like an even sillier Hogan's Heroes for a while.
Fortunately, things settle down once a teenage Jewish girl in hiding is introduced - Elsa, played by the terrific young actress Thomasin McKenzie (LEAVE NO TRACE). Elsa becomes the heart and soul of the movie and keeps it grounded. Jojo's mom (Scarlett Johansson) also brings some gravitas to the story despite also being a bit of a caricature at the outset. Jojo and Elsa strike up a guarded friendship of sorts despite being on 'opposite' sides - and, of course, the constant pestering of Fake Fuhrer (not to mention the intrusions of the Gestapo represented here by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). Rockwell and Wilson are out-sized cartoon villains who also seemingly have studied every frame of Wes Anderson's guide to broad acting. Archie Yates is genuinely affecting as Jojo's hapless friend Yorki.
JOJO RABBIT, despite far too many arch attempts at humor, eventually does get it points across. The music choices (often intentionally anachronistic) usually work (particularly for the touching coda), and Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s cinematography has some exceptional compositions. The Elsa/Jojo relationship garners some genuine moments of pathos and warmth (something Anderson rarely achieves). Waititi obviously means well, but, he is is own worst enemy as he himself turns in the most grating performance of all as Fake Fuhrer and wrote the screenplay (based on a novel). Every time McKenzie and Davis do their best to elevate the uneven storyline, Fake Fuhrer interrupts the flow and the mood. It is no exaggeration to say that the movie would be vastly improved with excision of the character entirely. At the very least, Waititi fails to give the gimmick a real reason to be. The irony is too mild, the arc so narrow that the character becomes virtually meaningless.
JOJO RABBIT is affecting on a certain level, but for a movie that bills itself as "An Anti-Hate Satire" it's pretty weak tea. Making a movie with Hitler as a sidekick will offend some just on it's face, so you may as well bring something much more cutting to justify it, but Waititi is more content with playing nice. For a parable about a youth in Germany during this period with teeth, seek out Volker Schlöndorff's masterful THE TIN DRUM (based on Gunter Grass' novel). JOJO is more akin to Roberto Bengini's benign if also affecting LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.