With “Jojo Rabbit,” a brazenly reflexive satire set during the Nazi Reich’s final days, director Taika Waititi tries his hardest to find the funny in fascism. Mostly, he fails miserably. Walking such a tonal tightrope proves precarious for the New Zealand-born filmmaker known for tender coming-of-age yarns like “Boy” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” and the horror splat-stick “What We Do in the Shadows.”
But it was Waititi’s directorial contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Conglomerate “Thor: Rangarok” that gave him enough mainstream capital to make something as potentially controversial as “Jojo Rabbit.” With great creative freedom comes great responsibility, and steep expectations.
The 10-year-old Jojo’s (Roman Griffin Davis) story begins with the prickly process of fanatical indoctrination, a psychological war with competing fronts. On the one hand, he loves the pomp and circumstance of dressing like a Nazi. But the violent actions and lack of empathy that accompany membership in this particular club feel entirely wrong, despite the incessant urging of Jojo’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi).
When Jojo discovers that his progressive mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), has been secretly hiding a Jewish teenager named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their family home, this crisis of ideology becomes even thornier.
Waititi’s strength has always been infusing heartfelt emotion within genre scenarios that normally would repel such sentiment. So, it’s not surprising that the best scenes in “Jojo Rabbit” are neither comedic nor satirical, but earnest moments of friendship that develop between the two adolescent causalities of war.
In hindsight, it might have been more daring to ditch the overblown farcical elements altogether and skewer hatred and bigotry through a more nuanced lens. Because as it stands now, “Jojo Rabbit” feels like a Ruthian swing and a miss, a hollow gesture of film that was made simply because it’s maker could.