Sometimes these things come out of nowhere, don’t they? A killer movie. An awesome song. A rousing book. A good joke. When we don’t see them coming, they can pack a wallop, you know?
When we don’t see them coming, we don’t have expectations. No “spoilers” to sidestep. No critics to listen to.
I had not seen a single trailer for Jojo Rabbit before I saw the movie (but it’s below). Didn’t have a single clue as to what it was about. Didn’t even know who was in it. (Oh, I said to Mary Jo as the credits rolled early on, Scarlett Johannson is in this? Mary Jo hates when I talk during movies. I talk a lot.)
All I had heard was that the film was directed by a guy who I had an inexplicable positive vibe about — I saw him on a teaser for another movie starring Ryan Reynolds, who I find relatively funny — with a name that I was sure I couldn’t pronounce. I guess I also had heard the film was nominated for an Academy Award. Plus, I had a coupon at Redbox. Really, what more do you need?
Mary Jo and I took the plunge — it beat out the Mister Rogers movie that weekend and something else — and bam.
It’s important to note here that Jojo Rabbit is what is evidently known, by people who pay attention to critics, as polarizing. Some didn’t like it. Some absolutely loved it. My short take: Any verdict on Jojo Rabbit will depend on whether you have a heart and a sense of humor, and whether you can see beyond any pre-misconceptions you may hold.
If so, you can’t help but like this film.
Jojo Rabbit was not a safe movie to make. It’s the story of a 10-year-old German boy, Jojo Betzler, who is on his way to becoming fully indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth program toward the end of World War II. That’s a tricky place for any film to start.
But from the beginning, as the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” blares (in German, no less) during the opening credits, it’s clear that this movie is not a conventional look at Nazis, antisemitism, and the horrors of war.
For one, it’s damn funny. It’s wonderfully acted and beautifully heartwarming, too. And devastatingly heartbreaking.
Mostly, it’s one of those rare, outrageously audacious projects (early on in the movie, I said to Mary Jo, Who comes up with this stuff? How did they sell this to a studio? Wha … ??? Mary Jo shifted to one side, as if she could actually get away from me in our living room) that rekindles the belief in what a good story, well told, can do.
Audacious? Well, 1) The movie centers on a 10-year-old boy. That’s a ballsy choice right there for any filmmaker, basing a movie on a pre-teen and featuring him in virtually every scene. And 2), putting that 10-year-old in Germany at the height of Hitler’s power, when every kid must have looked at Der Fuehrer as if he were Iron Man with a swastika? (The movie was inspired by Christine Leunens’ novel “Caging Skies.”)
And 3) Making it a comedy (which Leunens’ book was not)? And 4) Deciding (this was not in the book) to give Jojo an imaginary friend? Hitler himself? Outrageous.
Nazi Germany was not funny, many critics point out. Hitler was no joke. (This, I guess, is why we need professional movie critics, to tell us that.) And even if you wanted to make a comedy with Nazis in it as some way to ridicule them, the pooh-poohers poo, the Hitler-and-Nazi-Germany-as-satire bit has been done before. Charlie Chaplin did it. Mel Brooks, too.
But not like this. This film is different.
This movie makes fun of the Nazis, certainly. The brilliant Taika Waititi (who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for the movie) plays Hitler as a goofy 10-year-old mentor/buddy to Jojo.
“You’re still the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever met,” Jojo’s imaginary Hitler tells him in a pep talk at the beginning of the movie. “Heil me, man!“
But Jojo Rabbit is far more than some slapstick nose punch to Nazis. (Stephen Merchant plays a creepy, smiling Gestapo captain; the linked scene is, remarkably, both absurd and chilling.) Jojo, at its huge heart, is a hugely original coming of age story, a tale of a boy just beginning to think for himself, and one who finds out that, when he does, humanity can be found in the most inhumane of places.
Jojo is an absolute triumph. And with the title character, Waititi improbably fashions one of modern cinema’s most endearing heroes; a young, impressionable, cute-as-heil Nazi with a Hitler fetish and a pure heart.
No way anyone could have seen that coming. No way you’ll forget him.