Jojo Rabbit (2019): Taika Waititi’s Newest Coming-of-Age Story

Jojo_Rabbit_(2019)_poster.jpgWe must acknowledge the elephant or rather, the rabbit in the room. Grappling with the intersection of Nazis and humor has always been a loaded and controversial topic. But usually, it fosters conversation nonetheless so here’s an attempt to provide some meager context.

The Great Dictator (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942) are two of the most prescient films to come out of their era, years before we would get the campy buffoonery of Hogan’s Heroes (1965-71) or Mel Brooks’ irreverent breakout The Producers (1968). Even something more squarely dramatic like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) is still buoyed by laughs. Understandably, with each of these examples, there have been detractors who have called into question the ways in which they tackle the historical moment given the subject matter.

I am not here to tell anyone they are wrong. There’s also the reality that the issues being wrestled with are still very real, and even after 75 years, in many cases still very raw. All of this must be taken into account.

For instance, I recall the first time I learned about Alfons Heck, trained up from the age of 6 to be a loyal cog in the Nazi propaganda machine. Only years later, did he come to terms with all the lies he and his generation of German youth were being peddled. He subsequently toured the university circuit in the states with Holocaust survivor Helen Waterford denouncing the ills of ideological brainwashing, lest we forget it ever existed.

Or I was reminded of Hans Detlef Sierck (better known as renowned film director Douglas Sirk), who after marrying a Jewish woman, was blocked by his first wife, an ardent Nazi supporter, from seeing their son Klaus. The boy would become a child star in Nazi cinema, although he eventually died in combat in 1944. Sirk never saw him again.

These are stunning reminders of how virulent ideologies can tear lives apart and this is much of what Jojo Rabbit occupies itself with. But the difference is taking the negativity and making it positive. This is a tale about empathy, understanding, anti-hate if you will. If you accept the term leniently, it is a satire, but I tend to see that word coming with a bite or an irony (not unakin to Sirk or Billy Wilder).

However, this story is mostly full of warmth, good-humor, and because this is a Taika Waititi production, wackiness. Mind you, that’s generally a compliment. The opening refrains of “Komm, gib mir deine Hand,” known in the English-speaking free world known as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” equates the nationalistic fervor to Beatlemania, recontextualizing the history but also giving it a raucous vibe. 

Consequently, some people will find Jojo Rabbit at best inane and inconsequential and at worst, offensive — as is the case when anything as sensitive as the Nazis is brought to the fore. In an age of political correctness, it’s a film trampling a danger zone where racial epithets and maledictions leave the tongues of oafish buffoons. One decidedly ironic line curses a “female, Jewish Jesse Owens.”

This is where the movie and Taika Waititi — as an emblematic supporting character — are able to succeed. It sings with a warm benevolence that proves unerringly sweet. Empathizing with those with whom we would do well to connect with and undermining the villains’ remnant of cultural clout.

It starts with our hero Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a kind-hearted young boy. His is a bildungsroman story like we’ve seen time and time again (even from Waititi). Because he is a creature of innocence, despite what the culture leads him to believe about himself. Because the difference is he, like Heck or Sierck, is coming to age in the fanatical regime of the Nazis where he is being trained up to be a good little soldier.

He’s adorably inept and faint of heart like any young lad dealing with the peer pressure around him. As a 10-year-old he still can’t tie his shoelaces nor can he muster up the needed brutality to kill a bunny during the local war games. His only real friend is the rolly polly, bespectacled Yorki. He also has an invisible friend: the imaginary dopey incarnation of Adolf himself, portrayed by Waititi.

In a sense, taking this prominent role on, with his inherent slapstick and humor, allows the director to possess the man and deconstruct him, ridiculing him from within. It’s not elemental but like many of the Nazis portrayed in Hogan’s Heroes, Waititi has some Jewish heritage, further underlying his caricature.

Rebel Wilson is good for a few of her typical bawdy punchlines and Steve Merchant as the creepily skeletal, smiling Gestapo man manages to walk the film’s tightrope of humor and lingering menace quite well. Sam Rockwell is another walking joke waiting to go off, and yet even he is allowed moments of warmth and ultimate redemption.

Scarlett Johannson asserts herself in a maternal role as one of the legitimately decent people in the movie. Whether or not it’s one of her best performances, I’ve never seen her quite like this and that is compliment enough. She reminds us, through her affectionate devotion toward her son, the powerful, if monumental, undertaking parenting can be. How goodness and decency can cover a world of sins. How laughter and yes, even dance, can be a window to some small semblance of humanity.

One is also reminded Waititi is a genuine storyteller because it’s a tenuous line to balance humor with the bleakness, injecting the story with tension and tragedy in equal measures. You half expect the film to skimp on the ruthless nature of Nazism in favor of far easier put-downs. Instead, it searches out hope within the world and less fickle themes, without entirely dismissing reality.

Thomasin Mackenzie (the brilliant actress from Leave No Trace) goes part of the way in making this possible. Because she is the girl in the walls. She’s not a rat. As Jojo comes to realize, she’s a person. A victim certainly, but she’s also got strength and defiance. After all, her people have a history of wrestling with angels. She comes out of the same hardy tradition.

What she brings into the picture is a complexity to upend everything in Jojo’s fanciful mind. What first begins as a horror trope quickly evolves almost reluctantly into mutual understanding. If his relationship with his mother holds such a stake in his life, this curious new friendship is the crutch of the film, containing its message.

In the final moments, life is back to some form of normalcy. They stand out on the streets letting their bodies free for the first time set to David Bowie’s “Helden” (or “Heroes”). Instantly this feels like Perks of Being a Wallflower and yet somehow this kind of association doesn’t feel wrong because I think Waititi worked so hard to not make this just another WWII movie cut out of the same mold.

It has this universal feeling of adolescence while not totally disregarding history and yet it’s free and comfortable enough to pull it out of its context and flair it with colors and touches of humor. The joy is how heart and hope are the final building blocks even beyond the laughter. The key is how it’s never at the true expense of the victims. Somehow it’s more tender than I was ever expecting. It wants to continue the conversation. Whether or not you agree entirely with its methods, it does seem like a noble task to undertake.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Way Way Back (2013)

way way back 1.PNG

Kyrie Eleison along the road that I must travel…” ~ Mr. Mister

Liam James is undoubtedly a kindred spirit to many young men because he’s the epitome of awkward. His posture is terminally awful. He has no confidence, no presence, his hair could use a trim, and he’s pale and unassertive. He doesn’t even have a go-to dance move, heaven forbid. He’s the kind of kid who wears jeans to the beach in the throes of summer.

But that’s what we have at face value. The problem is he plays into the narrative that others have written for him and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Trent (Steve Carell), the man Duncan’s mother (Toni Colette) is seeing. He calls the boy out on his apparent lack of social skills and criticizes him for being a 3 on a scale from 1 to 10.

That’s what Ducan has to go up against as his makeshift family travels to the beachfront for summer vacation. It looks like a dead end, several months that Duncan will simply have to survive tagging along awkwardly with Trent’s self-absorbed teenage daughter or getting systematically belittled by Trent in small ways.

And yet this same summer that looks like a veritable disaster ends up becoming the most formative time in Duncan’s life because in the thick of all the bad stacked up against him he is introduced to a world of so much good. It’s one of those moments of sheer happenstance. He begins riding a pink bicycle around town to get away from the suffocation at home and finds himself crossing paths with everyone’s new favorite friend Owen (Sam Rockwell).

They meet over a Pac-Man game and it’s awkward. Because every conversation Duncan has is awkward (ie. He talks to his pretty next-door neighbor Susannah about the weather). But not about to give up on a kid in need of some camaraderie, Owen lets the lad into his life and offers him something remarkable: A job helping him at the water park Wizz World.

In itself cleaning up vomit and stacking chairs isn’t the image of a perfect summer. But by reaching out and giving Duncan something, Owen impacts someone else more than he will ever know. Because that park represents so much for Duncan. It’s the family he’s struggling to find. It’s his fountain of confidence. It provides him a much-needed platform where even he can be cool and be known by others. That’s what we all want, to be known and appreciated.

That’s why he returns again and again. In fact, it’s so apparent how often he rides off that Susannah (AnnaSophia Robb) follows him one day and the rest is history. This girl who is different than her peers begins to take an interest in his paradise because she sees a confidence and enthusiasm in him that never existed before and she too seeks an escape.

Meanwhile, Duncan’s home life is still a shambles. Things are shot to hell as Trent is cheating on his mother and their vacation gets quickly terminated. He’s unhappy with it all and there’s very little his mother can do about the situation. Forced to say goodbye to the best family he ever had, there’s still some satisfaction in one last trip to the water park.

He emblazons his name forever in the lore of Wizz World and he gets the joy of Owen facing down Trent. Perhaps most importantly, the ride in the way-back of the station wagon is a little less lonely on the return trip. His mother has made the concerted effort to be by his side which is a statement of her new resolve to hold their family unit together.

This film is a dream. No one would go so far as to say that this is the dream summer or the dream job but it is a bit of a fantasy and we wish it could be true. Because Wizz World much like Adventureland (2009) before it is an oasis from the worries and distractions of the world at large. It’s one of those places frozen in time year in and year out, in this case, stuck permanently in the 1980s. But this Neverland, far from stunting your growth, helps one teenager discover more of his confidence than he ever thought possible.

Likewise, Sam Rockwell is a cinematic creation, the voice we always wish we had, the cool guy we wish we had in our corner, the jokester who helps us become a better version of ourselves by bringing us out of our shells. In some ways, he’s Peter Pan. Because if he existed in reality, it would only be depressing, but here there’s a special aura about him that instantly makes him our favorite character.

Meanwhile, Steve Carell much to his credit shows another side of himself and even greater range as an actor as Trent, a man who can best be described as a Grade-A jerk. Still, there’s something tragic in the characterization. Everyone else from Maya Rudolph a fellow Wizz World manager, Allison Janney the uninhibited mom-next-door living life buzzed, or even writer/director partners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, all utilize their various quirks and qualities to stand out. Even Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet while playing a pair of obnoxious friends manage to leave their marks on those roles that feel surprisingly believable.

Faxon and Rash’s previous effort The Descendants (2011) is the kind of film that got award buzz and it’s a searing drama that’s almost brutal in impact. Whereas The Way Way Back is made for summer. It’s light, funny, full of life while still managing to be poignant. Coming-of-age nostalgia pieces are a personal weakness — a guilty pleasure even — and this film hits that sweet spot. Are there flaws? Yes, but why focus on those when there’s so much that’s refreshing like a summer vacation of old that you took with your family or ventures to the water park with your best friends? Sometimes we need films like this.

4/5 Stars

The Way Way Back (2013)

adcf5-the_way_way_back_posterI’m not one to usually laugh out loud during movies but for some reason I felt this sensation during this film. There were a lot of things that seemed to suggest that I should have rated this film lower but I could not help but give it four stars. Maybe it is the nostalgia it created or the typical coming of age story made interesting by some solid characters. Maybe it just reminded me of the times I use to go to water parks. I’m not sure.

Duncan has a life that I would not envy with a Step-father who calls him a 3 out of 10. However, he finds meaning and acceptance where he never expected to. The ending might be bittersweet but it was mostly sweet. There were a lot of supporting characters in this one. A lot of them only popped up on screen for a bit but for the most part they worked well. I think Liam James and Sam Rockwell stole the show though. Their camaraderie really made this film!

4/5 Stars