It’s hard not to like Taika Waititi. Even before directing the generally appreciated Thor: Ragnarok, his brand of indie humor was something of a unifying force over the ever hard to please Film Twitter. It’s easy to root for him, just as it’s easy to fall for his latest movie, Jojo Rabbit. This is a bonafide Oscar contender, complete with a stacked cast of stars and a premise that’s just wild enough to grab your attention: what if a young boy living in Nazi Germany, who’s so enamored with Hitler that he’s made the dictator his imaginary friend, is forced to confront his prejudice? It’s a bold swing, but also an admirably brave project for someone with Marvel clout to make. The problem? It’s hampered by some disastrous storytelling decisions that turn it into a 2019 version of Life is Beautiful or, even worse: this year’s Green Book.
When we first meet Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), he’s very excited to join his friends in Hitler Youth, here depicted as a day camp from hell managed by bumbling Nazi fools (Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson). He’s inspired by his imaginary friend (again, Hitler, here played by Waititi) to make an impression and show how brave he is, but an accident with a flare leads him to the hospital and out of the camp. Stuck at home, he learns that his mother (Scarlett Johansson, giving a career best performance) has a secret: she’s hiding a teenage Jewish refugee named Elsa (Thomas McKenzie). And, suddenly, Jojo’s forced to confront the internalized racism his nation has been instilling in him since birth.
This is an interesting, albeit uncomfortable, premise. Redemption arcs for terrible people are something that Hollywood needs to leave in the past (more on that later…), but one of the only ways it might still work as a narrative is if it follows a 10-year-old boy learning how to unpack prejudice and learn about the harm his hatred causes. The film is ambitious, and not all the jokes land, but Jojo’s arc — and how Elsa responds to the horrible things he says — works for at least an hour or so. This is largely because Davis and McKenzie are very talented young actors who bring a maturity and sense-of-self to their performances that most child stars lack. And, significantly, this first act is more interested in exploring how hatred is passed down through generations and spread through nations with propaganda. It’s not a perfect delivery system, but it’s not actively problematic.
The film works best when it has one simple goal: mocking Nazis. Waititi pays tribute to films like The Great Dictator in all of these humorous moments, and is clearly channeling Chaplin in the way he turns one of the most horrible human beings to ever walk the planet into a punching bag meant to be made fun of. Rebel Wilson also steals all of her scenes, whether she’s pushing child soldiers into battle or gleefully encouraging them to burn books at camp. This is maybe the first movie since Pitch Perfect that has properly utilized Wilson’s comedic abilities. Sam Rockwell and Alfie Allen’s characters are, in an eyebrow-raising decision, coded as gay, which is both offensive and also just not funny. But, when they’re not awkwardly leaning on gay tropes, they deliver a few laughs. Crucially, the film never forgets the immense tragedy that Nazis caused — especially when it takes some unexpectedly dark turns in the last act. It just understands that, sometimes, being able to laugh at monsters can take their power away.
But then we reach the ending … which will not be spoiled here, but talked about in only the vaguest of terms. Waititi, working from a book by Christine Leunens, makes two disastrous decisions that derail the movie and make it difficult, if not impossible, to defend. One storytelling device cannot be discussed without unpacking key plot details, but to keep it simple: a particular trope that we’ve decided should be put to rest is unnecessarily employed, forcing a character to make decisions that don’t feel realistic or satisfying. The ending relies on certain emotional beats that, because of this trope, don’t make sense.
The bigger problem, however, is a redemption arc given to one of the Nazis that doesn’t feel earned on a storytelling moral level. Since the script wisely makes all the Nazis characters that we’re meant to laugh at, suddenly giving one the introspection and seriousness needed to sell this redemption arc just doesn’t make sense. This character is a one-dimensional joke, why suddenly give them a heart? Furthermore, this character is a Nazi: why suddenly give them a heart? The film has already explored how hatred can infect young minds while taught as the norm by elders, and viewers have watched Jojo unpack those lessons and attempt to grow as a person. Giving one of the people who passed on that hatred (and, we can safely assume, has committed horrible atrocities) any sort of redemption in the eyes of the viewer cheapens Jojo’s lesson. To put it simply: this subplot is unnecessary, and leaves a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth.
That bad taste might be what makes Jojo Rabbit all the more disappointing. It seems like we’re going to be stuck with a problematic Oscar vehicle every year. As far as that unusual brand of awards bait goes, this is one of its best. It is a movie calibrated to work as a crowd-pleaser for the broadest audience possible, and it features a cast uniformly delivering good work. Moreover, Waititi is talented and his intentions are pure: you can tell he badly wants to make a movie about the horrors of the Holocaust that also encourages audiences to love one another and actively try to dismantle the hatred in their lives. But truly dismantling those systems is impossible when questionable plot devices are employed. This movie only succeeds if you actively turn a blind eye to its entire last act.