‘Jojo Rabbit’ successfully walks a comedic and emotional tightrope

“Jojo Rabbit” –  Taika Waititi is an immensely talented and creative actor, writer and director, but he needs to add tightrope walker to his resume, because he pulls off an impossible balancing act with his new film “Jojo Rabbit”.

Set in Germany during the last throes of WWII, Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), 10, is a devoted member of the Hitler Youth, but he discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl in their home, which throws his little fanatical mind for a loop.

On the surface, this seems like a semi-customary pitch to any movie studio, and yes, this film absolutely carries all the somber shades of a heavy, difficult and heartfelt drama.   On the other hand, “Jojo Rabbit” is also a flat-out hilarious and dicey physical comedy, which also includes our lead frequently talking to his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler, played by Taika.

Adolf Hitler?  Imaginary friend?  Let’s just say that “Jojo Rabbit” is not an ordinary trip to the movies.

Well, Taika’s courageous move would make Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom blush, and in the process, he successfully pulls off a high-wire-film-walk from the top of the 368-meter Fernsehturm Berlin to the tallest point of the 331-meter Europaturm.

Straightaway, the picture leaps on the screen with a startling and surreal three-minute cheerleading session, and then Jojo bursts from his home and runs through cobblestone streets repeating “Heil Hitler!” over and over, while an infinitely recognizable song “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” – from an infinitely recognizable band – blasts throughout the theatre.

(Note:  If you don’t know German, please hold back from turning to Google Translate for the English meaning, and for those who mastered the said language, many apologies for the reveal.)

From there, Jojo heads to his Hitler Youth Training Weekend, where the instructors teach Jojo, his second best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) and a couple hundred other kids how to climb ropes, properly wear gas masks, throw knives, and toss grenades.  The little tykes also discover the joy of burning books!  The montages and sequences play as visually farcical as the Khaki Scout Summer Camp in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), but here, counselor Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) preaches buckets of anti-Semitic messages, and the constantly-drinking Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) – otherwise known as Captain K – demonstrates weapons’ logistics with overwhelming apathy.

Weapons and children?  What could possibly go wrong?

Well, something does, and at the film’s 18-minute mark, the narrative turns away from slapstick and satire to a scene of sudden sobriety, when Jojo and his mom Rosie cannot unsee one of the horrors executed by the Nazis.

We also meet Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), the aforementioned German-Jewish girl, and the picture starts a personal, singular story of a teenage oppressee meeting a 10-year-old oppressor.

Taika has plenty of experience working with kids and edgy material, and look no further than “Boy” (2010) and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (2016) as prime examples.  In “Jojo Rabbit”, Jojo and Elsa share plenty of screen time, as his rockheaded perspectives – fed by the Nazi propaganda machine – might just crack through their intimate conversations.

Not only does the film walk a fine line between being offensive and comical – while also juggling several tonal shifts – but McKenzie balances Elsa’s internal struggles as well.  Make no mistake, Elsa is a strong person.  She stands her ground and puts this wannabe-Nazi in his place and on his heels, but she is also vulnerable and terribly scared.  McKenzie weaves these complex dynamics into Elsa which enrich her exchanges with Jojo and raise the stakes between the two in an ordinary house that is semi-insulated from the country’s disarray.

Meanwhile “Jojo Rabbit” is Davis’ first film, but one would never know it, as the young actor fearlessly dives into his character with a boisterous fever, as Jojo can verbally challenge Hitler, help the German war effort, show tender love for his mom, and also question his beliefs.  Nonetheless, after a lifetime of listening to his loving, altruistic mother but also Nazi propaganda, this little kid needs a ton of therapy.

During an Oct. 23rd “Jojo Rabbit” screening and Q&A with Thomasin McKenzie at the Camelview Harkins Theatre in Scottsdale, Ariz., she mentions that Rosie and Elsa are the most sane people in the movie.  With buckets of madcap comedy – including several scene-stealing moments from Captain K, Fraulein Rahm and Yorki – amid ever-present Nazi danger just outside Rosie and Jojo’s home, Thomasin is right.

Elsa shares her clear perspectives with Jojo, and Rosie offers the same through daily life lessons, bike rides, gentle walks, and warm hugs.  Still, Rosie cannot quite find the right human-passcode that will convince her son to give up his Nazi ideals, but perhaps Elsa and Jojo might break down some walls and become friends.

Friendship, support and love are hard to come by in 1944 Germany.  The country is on the verge of collapse.  Very little makes sense, and Taika offers his unique take on this time and place that stirs several emotions across the human spectrum over 108 minutes.  As the movie concludes, you might need a few more minutes to sit and simply process the experience, because it turns out that Taika and his film are not walking on a tightrope.  In order to cope with the chaos below, they are dancing on it.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image credits: Fox Searchlight Trailer credits: Movieclips Trailers

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