JOJO RABBIT: Two films that don't quite mesh
* * * (out of four)
“Jojo Rabbit” feels like two different movies awkwardly glued together.
One is a hip, contemporary “we-know-better” satire on Nazis and their hatred for the Jews. The other is an absorbing old-fashioned melodrama … about Nazis and their hatred for the Jews.
I enjoyed “Jojo” quite a bit, but I’m still not sure these two pieces belong in the same cinematic experience. Nonetheless, one thing is sure: The glue that holds it all together consists of two sensational child performances.
“Jojo” is the nickname of one Johannes Betzler, a 10-year-old German boy who desperately wants to join the war effort and serve -- as he puts it -- “the savior of our country, Adolf Hitler.”
Jojo’s Hitler-worship is so extreme that the Fuhrer serves as his imaginary friend, appearing regularly to counsel and cajole the boy as he joins the Hitler Youth; here, various mishaps (including his nickname-earning refusal to kill a bunny) result in nonmilitary service and a return to life at home with his mother.
The comedy in this opening act -- with Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell playing stooge-like Nazi staffers -- takes some getting used to. It’s especially awkward with the smart-alecky Rockwell -- who usually acts as the quintessential modern-day wise-guy. And it only gets worse later, when we learn his character is both gay and an awful lot nicer than we thought.
I’m sorry guys, but comical, gay, nice-guy Nazis just wasn’t cutting it for me.
This is compounded by the fact that all the Germans speak English in a variety of accents, including Jojo’s friend Yorki, who is clearly British. Another insanely distracting problem is the wide use of contemporary idioms such as “screw-up,” “stressed out,” “correctimundo,” “get your s--t together” and “f--- off.” Needless to say, this also does not work.
Fortunately, the film moves into very different territory when Jojo discovers a 17-year-old Jewish girl his mom is sheltering in a hidden room. As the soulful, street-smart Elsa plays on the boy’s absurd fear and racism, Jojo struggles hopelessly to maintain his hatred of Jews, eventually finding that he has fallen in love.
This part of the film -- which is really most of it -- works beautifully, fleshed out by a marvelous lead performance from Roman Griffin Davis, whose Jojo is easy to like and love despite his misguided devotion to the Reich. And then there’s the galvanizing Thomasin McKenzie, who burst onto the scene two years ago with her dazzling work in “Leave No Trace.” She will have no trouble making the transition to adult star. The film also features solid work from Taika Waititi as Hitler; Waititi wrote and directed “Jojo,” which received six Oscar nominations.
Believe me, the final two acts of “Jojo Rabbit” are so lovely and so thoroughly absorbing that you will forget all about the early awkwardness.
At least until Jojo and Elsa start dancing to David Bowie.
directed by Taika Waititi
Run time: 108 min.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, language and violence