Jojo Rabbit is regrettably empty with little to say
By Chase Hutchinson
Jojo Rabbit is supposedly a satire. It isn't. Not really. From the beginning, promotional material was incredibly in your face with how it repeatedly billed itself as an "anti-hate satire" which came across as somewhat defensive. My fears were that they were concerned that people might not get the joke and that it might unintentionally endear the Nazis in the film. That is something you always have to be aware of (see the great Lindsay Ellis video essay on the subject) as that can quickly be something you lose control of. I did have faith in Waititi (who wrote and directed the film) which wasn't let down as he does have a good handle on the subject and doesn't lose control of that narrative. Unfortunately, it just feels void of much substance. The story is not really saying much or making any particular point that resonated with me. There are moments where if I squint hard I can possibly begin to see what they were going for with how the narrative is seen through the eyes of a child. Jojo, our protagonist, is naive and doesn't understand the hate in the world around him. He has simply been brainwashed and begins to see those teachings fade away. That process with how he begins to see the errors of his ways is not compelling or convincing. It feels very on the nose and lacked any sort of moment that made me sit up in my chair. I don't buy into that even when it really is trying it's darnedest.
The problem is, even when it is trying, that part of the story is kept mostly in the background. For lack of a better description, the film feels mostly like a children's coming of age story with small winks and nods towards the adults in the audience. Most of the scenes are something that could be in any other movie and it doesn't really stand out for itself. As the narrative shifted and it became clear the story was going to be one of.....first young love I began to become very nervous. It is not a spoiler to say that Jojo is part of Hitler Youth but upon being injured finds himself trapped at home with no one to talk to (or so he thinks) save for his imaginary friend. More on him later. However, he soon discovers that there is another person there as well. That is when we are introduced to Elsa, a young Jewish girl who is hiding away from the Nazis in their attic with the assistance of Jojo's mother. After initial fear, Jojo soon begins to develop a...crush (for lack of a better word) for Elsa. Elsa is mostly bemused at this and simply indulges Jojo's repeated questions, cooking for her, fake love letters from her previous boyfriend, etc. It is meant to be somewhat cute if a bit sad. I just couldn't help feeling mostly confused why this was the focus of almost the entire film. It felt like a budgetary constraint as these scenes take place mostly in the same room.
This entire storyline would be painfully generic in any other plot but in this it is worse than that. It feels off and frankly out of place. Did Jojo need to develop an attraction to Elsa? Many of the jokes come from his awkward attempts at flirtation but they are the least interesting jokes in the film. Defenders of the film will say that yes, he had to begin to see that all of his teachings and indoctrination was wrong. That Jewish people are not monsters and that they are people. Yes, all well and good if a bit surface level. However, there is just an unsettling fear I had through most of the narrative that if he had not found Elsa attractive, would he have cared as much? It was something I couldn't shake and it really put me on edge especially since he ends up making several decisions, including a particularity horrifying one towards the end, that made me question if he really had grown that much as a character. If you are reading this and don't consider this to be a problem, then good for you. I can easily see how people will balk at my criticisms by just saying that this is merely a framing device to tell the real story about a child becoming more inclusive. I am willing to possibly put this criticism aside or at least recognize that an unnecessary romance plot is a problem with most movies generally. Even if I do all that, what little that is left over is genuinely empty.
What does it mean to 'go to war on hate' when that means going to war with yourself?
It is possible that my expectations were too high. That the way the movie portrayed itself at its greatest aspirations was a far more generous and ambitious picture of what it actually was. Not every movie has to have something profound to say. But this one seemed like it really wanted to. And it just really did not. If you go in expecting a razor sharp skewering of white supremacist ideology, you will be disappointed. The biggest frustration is in that of the character Waititi plays. I think it is important to note that he does not play Hitler, he plays a child's imagined version of Hitler. It may seem like a minor distinction, but it is very much an important one. All that he represents is what Jojo has been taught from the moment he is born. He is Jojo's subconscious, his fears, his anxieties, and above all else his learned hate. It therefore makes sense that the friendly relationship they have at the beginning of the film is one that will not last. If the film is going to war on hate, Jojo must go to war with a part of himself. As I describe this, I am curious to see what the movie could have been like if that was more of the focus: Jojo grappling with his own internalized ideas. Alas, it is not. Waititi is mostly limited to goofy one liners and silly gags (he eats a unicorn head at their dinner table) that while entertaining don't say much of anything. He does these scenes well and is genuinely good in the role. It just never amounts to much.
I am a big fan of what I suppose can be classified as 'magical realism' but the way that the story just almost forgets about him midway through is a problem. The process needed to be more in the forefront and present throughout the narrative. Instead, the focus ends up being about his attempt to win over his crush and the fact that this process requires overcoming his hateful ideology is barely a footnote. That his mother is harboring a fugitive of the state and is part of a resistance movement set up what I thought would be an interesting conflict. She is terrified of her son and can't trust him to tell him anything. However, she is suddenly removed from the narrative in a way that would have been more impactful or meaningful if it hadn't been so sudden. The story would have benefited immensely from taking its time with these more interesting narrative threads instead of being more invested in the sillier and childlike aspects of the plot. I understand that this loss of innocence is part of the journey, but it never felt like that genuinely happens. He seems pretty innocent all the way up to the final shot. Instead, the story just tip toes around these deeper ideas without really grappling with them. I appreciated a lot of the potential aspects that the story had, they just never went anywhere that stuck with me.
In summation, the biggest problem I have realized I had is with the tone of the film. I expected the story to get much darker and grapple with the source material much more intensely. When a satire isn't a satire what you are left with is a story that lacks any sort of core thesis or point to it. Instead, it just felt like a story I've seen many times before without anything that I will take away as being significant. The resolution Jojo has with the hateful parts of himself is resolved rather easily (and rather unsubtly where he literally kicks it out of a window) which left me feeling rather letdown about what could have been. I wanted to like it and I think I may in fact like it more upon a second viewing when my expectations are much lower. It just felt strange in a film that seemed to portray itself as being bold and audacious it was not only none of those things, it was safely conventional in all of the wrong ways. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall to learn about why they wanted to tell this story and bill it as a satire because that was a mistake that the movie pays for. I still think that for some you may find what I could imagine being an interesting conversation starter if you still genuinely want to see it. For myself, that conversation would be a short one that simply ends with: there wasn't much of anything actually there.