PLOT A Nazi boy discovers a Jewish girl hiding in his home.
CAST Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Taika Waititi
RATED PG-13 (mature themes)
BOTTOM LINE The drama works better than the comedy in this uneven coming-of-age story.
Taika Waititi's comedy-drama "Jojo Rabbit," about a Nazi youth whose imaginary best friend is a wacky Adolf Hitler, is being advertised with a note that reads: "An Anti-Hate Satire." The studio, Fox Searchlight, seems worried – not that people might take offense to Nazi humor, but that people might think it isn't intended as humor at all. If only "Joker" had come with a similar disclaimer —"For Entertainment Purposes Only," perhaps – the filmmakers might have saved themselves some headaches.
The weird political climate "Jojo Rabbit" finds itself in may be new, but the movie itself treads familiar territory. Not so much Mel Brooks' Nazi-themed spoof "The Producers" (an iffy proposition when released in 1967), but Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful," the Oscar-winning 1997 comedy about life in a concentration camp. It's that film to which "Jojo Rabbit" owes its combination of whimsy, slapstick and sorrow.
The title is a cruel nickname for sensitive little Jojo Betzler, winningly played by first-time film actor Roman Griffin Davis. He's a budding fanatic, seduced by the Third Reich's dapper uniforms and maniacal masculinity, though at home with his mother, Rosie (a lovely Scarlett Johansson), he's still just a cuddly kid. A shocker comes when Jojo discovers a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), hiding in an upstairs room. (Gratifyingly, she isn't a docile, grateful stereotype but a hard-nosed survivor.) Elsa and Jojo begin as enemies, but a friendship slowly develops.
Meanwhile, "Jojo Rabbit" also goes for broad, absurdist humor, mostly at the Nazis' expense. Only some of it works. Sam Rockwell is appealing as the world-weary (and closeted) Captain Klenzendorf, while Rebel Wilson plays Fraulein Rahm, a proud producer of cannon-fodder ("I've had 18 kids for Germany!" she boasts). Another first-time actor, young Archie Yates, nearly steals the show as Yorki, a pint-size Nazi who toddles off to war with an oh-well attitude.
As for Waititi's Hitler, he's a muddle: Part sidekick, part villain, part goofball, given to saying things like "Correctamundo" and doing weird things like eating roasted unicorn. Frankly, the film could have done without him. When "Jojo Rabbit" turns serious – and it does, quite movingly – the less appealing this nutty Fuhrer becomes.
Despite what the posters say, "Jojo Rabbit" isn't really a satire. It's a tender-hearted film eager to find the saving grace of humor amidst horror. That's to be commended, even if it only partly succeeds.