Sunday, November 10, 2019

Don't be stupid, be a smarty


For all your Nazi dramedy-with-a-heart needs, assuming you needed that for some reason.  Personally, I liked it, though there's a point at which this movie clearly doesn't know what it's doing anymore.

Written and directed by Taika Waititi (based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Above and beyond anything else, I need to get it off my chest: it never stopped bothering me that the kid's name is Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), pronounced with the "Y" sound and everything, insofar as it would sound pretty stupid to pronounce it otherwise; but his nickname, Jojo, is pronounced with a "J," like it would be in English, and I'd been calling it "Yoyo Rabbit" for weeks, smug and superior as I'm wont to be, not expecting the movie itself to call attention to the linguistic disconnect in practically every single line.  It is, anyway, the most salient expression of Jojo Rabbit's approach to "being set in Nazi Germany," and it is hammered home in similar ways by some of the most inconsistent and not-even-really-trying accents in living memory, from Sam Rockwell somehow doing "Southern drawl" and "Colonel Klink" simultaneously to Rebel Wilson just being Australian to Alfie Allen insisting that "being loud" is a kind of German accent to Scarlett Johannson actually sort of hitting something in the general vicinity of Middle Europe, which makes it weirder that Adolf Hitler, or the idea of Adolf Hitler, is a Kiwi.  Maybe I've buried the lede: this is the one where a Maori Jew in blue contacts plays Johannes Betzler's imaginary friend, Hitler.  But you knew that already.  Or most of it, anyway; Hitler's blue eyes did, in fact, come as a surprise to me.

The point is, Jojo Rabbit spends 95% of its runtime denying nearly any connection to our known reality, which is probably the fundamental cause of every one of its problems, because it simply does not know when to stop.  And that's if you were on board in the first place (not something I think anyone should have assumed) with a last-days-of-Nazi Germany/Holocaust melodrama, as channeled through a wacky kid's adventure story that's been written with the wit of a successful sketch comedian and stuffed into the kind of twee Wes Anderson-style dioramas that Jojo Rabbit's writer, director and Hitler, Taika Waititi, has apparently come to favor more and more (the last film he did for himself, Hunt For the Wilderpeople, made substantial efforts toward turning the primordial New Zealand bush into a Wes Anderson-style dioarama, though the bush resisted being contained, and the tension inherent to that is one reason why Wilderpeople is a masterpiece).

This will, to put it mildly, not be to all tastes, but theoretically what it's all there to do is to give the 5% of it that does have a connection with reality all the more terrible impact, especially when the film takes a seemingly decisive turn, which happens all inside a single shot.  Suddenly, the pitch-black fun it's been having with Nazi brutality turns out to have been extremely serious after all, because—surprise!—this atrocity had very real personal consequences for everybody who lived through it.  I can recognize and even admire what's being attempted here; it's the best shot of the movie, anyway, followed by the second-through-fifth best shots of the movie, which somehow make windows look like the eyes of a character who's not with us anymore; and these are followed by the film's tensest scene, which ends in a way that I wouldn't blame someone for being moved by.  And yet: when theory meets practice, the movie fails to acknowledge, in any abiding way—for more than that one subsequent scene, really—that it has stopped being a comedy.  I suspect that it thinks it acknowledges this.  It's certainly possible that the scenes thereafter aren't supposed to be "comedy," as such, but such bleak absurdism that it's hard not to laugh at it.

As we all know how WWII concluded, I'd assume it's not a spoiler to remark that Jojo Rabbit ends in a phantasmagoria of Volkssturm child soldiers and geriatric panzerfaust gunners taking to the streets to battle their American and Soviet opponents—I have no idea where the fuck Jojo Rabbit takes place specifically, though, in fairness, neither does it—and in this, it has everything it needs for a daylight nightmare.  But even at this extreme, it still plays out more like a sketch, only now it's a sketch that's ready to run out its explosion budget.  Oddly, had it gone further, it probably would have worked.  Like if it hadn't felt the need, like any old sitcom, to have set up its splendid visual gag of two gay Nazis riding into the teeth of a Red Army tank company in the Liberace-style uniforms they designed and presumably sewed themselves; or, you know, maybe if it fully embraced the fact that the fall of Nazi Germany involved several million annihilated human bodies and those who survived did so in a ruined country.  Basically, what I'm saying is that Waititi set himself out a terrifyingly ambitious challenge, essentially what amounts to a tonal tightrope walk a hundred feet in the air with a net that's looking pretty ragged; and, hell, I guess it's remarkable that it's as successful as it is.

And it actually works out pretty well for a while, even if it also never quite tops the kind of opening where you feel your feet give way underneath you, starting with the appearance of Waititi in Hitler drag (the film later does a very nice joke about his jodpuhrs), and continuing directly into a credits montage that introduces us to Waititi's Nazi terrarium by way of several lateral tracking shots that follow young Johannes around his (throwing a dart...) Saxon hamlet, heiling Hitler to everyone he sees, all of this intercut with stock footage of 1933-vintage "Hitlermania," backed by the Beatles singing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" in German.  (Something that the movie definitely understands about Johannes, and, given the very predictable objections from the more-strident-than-thou/circular-firing-squad left, perhaps should have been made plainer than "an impressionistic stock footage montage," is that Johannes—being ten years old—has literally never known any other reality than a Nazi Germany.)  The year is 1945, and the war is, of course, nearing its decision, but you would hardly know it from the sunny day or the peaceful town or the Nazi Moonrise Kingdom that Jojo Rabbit spends a couple of reels being.  Altogether, the opening, and probably about the next half-hour of screentime, and the colorful cinematography throughout, are here to remind you that the proverbial "good German" was able to experience a great deal of perfectly normal happiness while staggering crimes were committed in his name, and that Nazi Germany was designed as a machine to make no other thoughts but genocide and war and total devotion to a madman possible for those who came of age inside it.

Anyway, Johannes is enjoying his life, at least as much as a wimpy unpopular kid in a fascist society can; his mother, Rosie (Johannson), sends "Jojo" off to Hitlerjugend camp, where he promptly earns the additional appellation "Rabbit" for failing to live up to fascist ideals and murder a bunny, and shortly thereafter blows himself up with a grenade.  (Possibly the worst thing about the movie, then, isn't political, but that it has a screenplay that leans ridiculously heavily on Jojo's disfigurement, and a makeup department that gives him scars you can barely see even in a medium close-up.  I kept trying to determine if the shrapnel had carved a swastika on his face; it didn't, and because I like blatant visual symbolism, especially symbolism that would've complicated Jojo's simplistic A-to-B character arc, I kind of wish it had.)

Jojo, recuperating, has the opportunity to spend a lot more time at home, and that's when he learns that he and his mom aren't there alone, but that Rosie has been hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic for who knows how many years.  Jojo is distraught, of course: he hates the Jewish people, and would happily turn her in; but if he does that, this girl, Elsa, will have little choice but to let the Gestapo know who was hiding her, and Jojo is under few illusions what will become of his secretly anti-Nazi mother then.  Elsa makes an additional demand, requiring that Jojo not even tell Rosie he knows; because then Rosie would probably have to get rid of her herself.  Quite the pickle, but, obviously, as Jojo comes to know Elsa better, he begins to question his hatred of Jews, and all that stuff, and so slowly becomes Elsa's active protector and friend (in ways that the movie takes a little too long to twist out, frankly, and the Goebbels-style "guidebook on Jews" Jojo wants her to help him write leads to probably the dumbest material in the film).  In any event, this is not exactly guaranteed to work out well for them.

From a strictly political standpoint, it's both too much and too little to say that Jojo Rabbit is "feel-good," which has been the description (or epithet) thrown at it often enough, though it certainly has "feel-good" aspects, particularly an epilogue that is both the film's one flirtation with genuine bravery and also, I could be convinced, where it goes completely off the damn rails tonally.  Easier to break it down into its component (or competing?) parts, then.  As a film qua film, I already mentioned Mihai M─âlaimare Jr.'s nicely-bright cinematography, though the department head doing the heaviest lifting here must be costume designer Mayes Rubeo.  That's certainly fitting for Jojo Rabbit's caustic take on Nazi aesthetics, even if the most fun Rubeo is having is dressing Johansson in her civilian attire, as if this were a contemporary Technicolor spectacular.  As a comedy, Waititi's made a funny one; according to the full-body reactions of a guy a couple seats down from me, it must've been the funniest movie he's seen this year, because, Jesus, if it wasn't, I assume that anything funnier would've given him a heart attack.  I thought it was funny too, but that's awfully subjective, and Jojo Rabbit is sometimes too content with a bunch of self-amused riffing ("heil Hitler" "heil Hitler" "heil Hitler," and so on), rather than the savage satire of the opening, which never really returns, not even when Rebel Wilson starts arming tiny children and old women with submachine guns.  (To name a standout performer, then, it's inevitably Waititi, indulged as he is by the director; second place goes to Rockwell's exhausted Hitlerjugend instructor, though at some point my dude has got to put a moratorium on playing goofy white supremacists.)

As a melodrama about a family caught up in war, it's reasonably affecting, albeit more in terms of Rosie than Jojo.  Naturally enough, maybe: Rosie's the adult here, and therefore the one tasked with stealing moments of joy out of the impending collapse of the Third Reich, while also facing the unenviable task of de-Nazifying her brainwashed son without committing overt sedition.  I imagine that one can be distracted by Johansson's decision to play most of her scenes with Davis as "actively flirting with a ten year old boy," but I suppose the goal was "cute," and I won't say it objectively doesn't work.  And as a Holocaust text... I don't know what Jojo Rabbit's detractors even wanted, exactly.  The Nazi stays a Nazi and gives up his mom and the Jew to the death camps?  Gosh, I bet you're fun at parties.

So, as a message movie, I think it's more successful than it is at anything else, functioning as its own sort of good-guy propaganda.  I like that quite a bit: in the same breath that it (correctly) mocks the fascist themes of sacrifice and transcendence, it embraces exactly the same tactics for its own cause.  And I'll never reject out of hand any movie, just because in a lot of other respects all it has are pat answers and pat redemptions, if its heart is in the right place.  Jojo Rabbit's is.  It could be better, but it could also be even more trivializing than it already is, and at least the ways it trivializes some pretty heavy shit range from the brilliant to the perversely fascinating.  Terrence Malick will be doing his take on the same themes in a month, and I have no doubt that A Hidden Life will excel in ways that Jojo Rabbit never had much of a chance to.  But let's consider the difficulty here.  A tightrope walk, I called it earlier; and, yes, Waititi definitely takes a fall.  But he made it further than I'd have thought.

Score: 7/10

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