JOJO RABBIT (2019, Taika Waititi)
George Carlin said you can joke about anything; it just depends on how you construct the joke. Anthony Jeselnik explores these boundaries by ensuring that his ostensibly offensive jokes take aim at deserving targets — for example, in this joke (“My grandmother was so racist she told us Santa Claus was black, so that when we found out he didn’t exist it wouldn’t upset us so much”) the target is the racism of the elderly, not blacks or Santa Claus.
So, yes, I think you can joke about the Holocaust, and I think Waititi knows this. The problem (and for me, a particularly huge problem) is that although the targets of his jokes in this movie are Nazis and Hitler, the jokes aren’t funny enough or smart enough to counter the very palpable sense of softening cuteness applied to said Nazis. Sam Rockwell’s character is a notable example of one of the heroes of the movie — saving two lives in noble sacrifice, proving himself to be a hell of a cool SS commandant. As for the lovable little scamp at the center, he spends the majority of the movie spewing some of the most abominable anti-Semitic hatred you could imagine (most of it right to Anne Frank’s face, and the rest of it in dialogue with his imaginary friend, Adolf Hiter), just so we can pat ourselves on the back for approving of his eventual enlightenment that Jews aren’t so bad after all.
One of the supposed saints in his life is his mother (played with uncharacteristic confusion by Scarlett Johansson), who never tries even remotely to cure her son of his loathsome views. She’s secretly working to aid the Jews and rebel against the Third Reich, but never does what a good parent would actually do — and set an example for her son or challenge his venomous hatred. Her ostensible defense is by shielding him from her actions she’s protecting him, but first of all it doesn’t protect him, and secondly that’s not a good reason to passively encourage the sweeping enthusiasm of Hitler Youth. As for the kid’s imaginary friendship with Der Fuhrer, Waititi’s broad, hammy performance is pitched at a shrill and detestable level — his anachronistic sense of humor is aimed at making a mockery of Hitler, which is better than praising him of course, but also defangs one of the most evil war criminals in human history, as if he’s just a goofy figment of your imagination — whew! Glad he isn’t a real person committing genocide! That would be terrible.
And that’s the general tone of this misbegotten Wes Anderson clone: a mushy, sweet, twee satire of WWII atrocities drained of any violence (except one tastefully hidden recognition of a major character’s death) or acknowledgement of the repugnant traumas suffered by my ancestors. And since it isn’t funny (Rebel Wilson is particularly obnoxious in her clueless scramble for a comic register), we’re left with not much to grasp. Thomasin McKenzie is quite good and acquits herself of a role that basically amounts to waiting for the help and rescue and friendship of a pre-adolescent Nazi, and Waititi continues to display a sharp eye for wide-angle frames and editing that understands where comic timing should hit. It’s just that with a script this dour, none of the technical skill can save it. When the end credits roll in the colorful red-and-black font of the SS, it’s almost as if the Holocaust was actually nothing worse than a misguided David Bowie needle drop.