Mocking Hitler and his Nazi ghouls is like shooting dead fish in a Fisher Price-sized barrel.
It’s already been done, too, and expertly so via “The Producers” more than 50 years ago … not to mention a certain film by Charlie Chaplin. And, given our recent propensity to slam half the country as Nazis, the notion of a Hitler satire seems utterly safe, if not predictable.
So that aspect of “Jojo Rabbit,” a black comedy about a boy and his imaginary friend named Adolf, isn’t revolutionary. What is, though, is every other aspect of the presentation.
Writer/director Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok”) constructs a gorgeous, silly and soulful film that mocks the Third Reich while letting some humanity filter in between the carnage.
Not everyone will cheer the juxtaposition of stellar sight gags and decomposing bodies. Those able to swallow those violent tonal shifts will enjoy the year’s best comedy.
Young Jojo (child actor Roman Griffin Davis, so good he deserves Best Actor consideration) wants nothing more than to help the Nazi cause. He’s 10, so that means mock war games under the loopy direction of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell). The little guy doesn’t have that killer instinct, though, which leads to his derisive nickname -- Jojo Rabbit.
It also forces him to overcompensate, nearly getting himself killed in the process.
Good thing Adolf has his back. Waititi plays Der Fuhrer, as comically broad as the law will allow, serving as Jojo’s imaginary chum. It’s a sublime turn, deliberate but unhinged. Waititi doesn’t overstay his welcome, but you miss him when he’s off screen.
Meanwhile, Jojo’s mother (Scarlett Johansson, showing a nimble comic touch) isn’t on Team Adolf. In fact, she’s hiding a Jewish teenager in their house, much to Jojo’s consternation. “Leave No Trace” standout Thomasin McKenzie plays Elsa, who lives within the walls of Jojo’s modest home.
What follows is surprisingly tense, difficult at times and fitfully hilarious. The first 10 or so minutes are as funny as any film in recent memory. Kudos to Rockwell, Rebel Wilson (funnier than she’s been, well, ever…) and Stephen Merchant for fleshing out an air-tight supporting cast.
None of it matters without young Davis, making an astounding big screen debut. His Jojo will break your heart even as he insists all Jews have horns and scales. Meanwhile, he’s developing a crush on the one trapped in his own home.
It makes Sacha Baron Cohen’s faux Jew hatred in “Borat” look infantile by comparison.
No Joke: Taika Waititi’s Nazi Satire ‘Jojo Rabbit’ Is an Oscar Contender https://t.co/gY6fSrWN2Y
— Variety (@Variety) October 15, 2019
The film’s visual packaging is sublime, from the Beatles-esque opening to the way Waititi conducts every ounce of physical comedy. He brings a near Wes Anderson sense of composition to his “Rabbit,” but it lacks that auetur’s suffocating hipness.
“Jojo Rabbit” loses some of its humor in the third act, as the Nazi regime finally starts to collapse. That’s not a spoiler, just history. Still, “Jojo Rabbit” mines a few final laughs from the most unexpected of places, showing comedy’s power to triumph in virtually any setting.
Waititi’s expert touch makes that possible. Lesser hands would render “Jojo Rabbit” insufferable, or worse.
The film even finds a measure of forgiveness in some of the assembled Nazis. That takes courage, but it’s what the best filmmaker do -- view their characters as people, not brittle archetypes.
Some may howl at that development, particularly when films about racial healing are suddenly in the cultural cross hairs. Finding a flicker of humanity in the German death machine is the most subversive element in all of “Jojo Rabbit.”
HiT or Miss: “Jojo Rabbit” is hilarious and tragic, Python-esque and heart-breaking. It’s the comic smart bomb we’ve been waiting for … but didn’t know it.