Not that it would be advisable at first glance, but if you could somehow cobble together a mash-up of Wes Anderson, Monty Python, and The Diary of Anne Frank, you might find yourself in the neighborhood of Taika Waititi’s simultaneously whack-a-doo and gut-wrenching Jojo Rabbit. It may indeed sound like a rather crass idea, but this is one you have to see to appreciate. And it’s well worth being both seen and appreciated.
In the waning days of World War II, Berlin youngster Jojo Bertzler (11-year-old Roman Griffin Davis in a phenomenal debut) is readying himself for a weekend-long Hitler Youth training retreat. Helping psych him up is his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi), a drole devil on his shoulder who espouses the rhetoric of the Reich while giving his little buddy gusto-filled high-fives. After Jojo’s training goes horribly wrong (alas, an unfortunate mishap with a grenade), he returns home to recuperate in the care of his mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson), only to find that she’s sheltering a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in an upstairs crawlspace.
Imaginary Hitler, of course, is more than a little peeved at this revelation and tries to convince Jojo to report both Rosie and Elsa to the Gestapo (which is led by a deliciously wry Stephen Merchant), but the boy instead gets to know Elsa, and the two form a bond that is among the sweetest, most touching relationships you’ll see on screens this year.
Along with starring, co-producing and directing, Waititi adapted the screenplay for Jojo Rabbit from Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, bringing the same acerbic satire and outside-the-box sensibilities that made his 2017 Marvel film Thor: Ragnarok one of the more memorable entries in that studio’s canon. His uncanny ability to walk the tightrope between comedy and tragedy here is a feat to behold. Plus, anyone who can inexplicably make Hitler an amusing character is rare and special indeed.
Along with the outstanding work by Davis and McKenzie, Johansson also shines, turning in her finest, most heartfelt performance since 2003’s Lost In Translation. The supporting cast is bonkers-good, too, including Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson as hilarious instructors at the Hitler Youth camp and newcomer Archie Yates as Jojo’s best friend, Yorki.
Though certainly not for every palate, Jojo Rabbit makes for a supremely entertaining two hours due to its perfectly crafted mix of heady notions and goofball comedy (German shepherds play a knee-slapper role, as does the concept of “blowing up schtuff”). You will laugh so hard you’ll cry, and then you’ll just go right on crying because your heart just got ripped out of your chest. There’s no reason, on paper, that Jojo Rabbit should work, but not only does it work, it’s as fresh and powerful a piece of filmmaking to hit theaters in quite some time.