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#MovieTalk: JOJO RABBIT and some stuff about The Rock

JOJO RABBIT (2019)

Directed By: Taika WaititiWritten By: Taika Waititi, (based on a novel by) Christine LeunensStarring: Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin Mckenzie and Taika Waititi

Synopsis: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

(Phew… The Rock makes some terrible movies, doesn’t he? Oh he’s not in “Jojo Rabbit”, no no no, 2018’s “Rampage” is playing on TV right now and I hadn’t gotten around to watching it. It’s like the dude makes live-action Saturday morning cartoons, you feel me? And it’s not even The Rock’s fault nor is it Dwayne Johnson’s fault. It’s *ours*. See he gave us “Gridiron Gang” and “Snitch” and “Pain and Gain” but we ignored him. It’s only right that he should retaliate with movie after movie pitting him against board game villains in some sort of jungle setting. And hey for every “George of the Jungle”, “Jungle Cruise” or “Skyscraper”, maybe we get a “Jumanji”. Who am I to complain?)

(More importantly, why is his character in this “movie” named “Okoye”? Was it explained? Dang I musta missed it while I was recovering from watching the building-sized wolf leap outta the jungle and maul a guy right out of a helicopter on its way down.)

(Poor Naomie Harris.)

Okay, okay, “Jojo Rabbit”. When it comes to satirizing this time period – Nazi Germany in the early 1940’s – there seems to be two extremes: on the one end is Charlie Chaplin’s critically acclaimed hit movie “The Great Dictator”, arguably the benchmark of satire on film, released during the height of Nazi fever. A massive gamble that took balls the size of a mutated gorilla (dammit “Rampage”! Stay out of my review!), which thankfully paid off for Chaplin resulting not only in the biggest hit of his career and tons of awards, but it also helped further turn the tide against Hitler and dem boys.

(An astronomically large crocodile has invaded downtown Chicago and just snapped a fighter jet out of the sky… why are all these pilots flying so low?)

On the other end you have a movie so notorious for its awfulness (1972’s “The Day The Clown Cried”) that not only has it never been released (at the request of its own director, Jerry Lewis… yes, that Jerry Lewis) but explicit instructions were attached to the copy secretly donated to the Library of Congress: that it is not to be screened under any circumstances before 2024, by which point Jerry rightly guessed that he’d be dead.

(Oh shit, Plop is in this movie? Fans of “The Office” you know who I’m talkin’ about… he’s in this bitch!)

Why such a wide disparity in how these two projects were received? Well, Jerry Lewis’ movie was never technically received by the public but the reaction to early screenings by critics and industry insiders was enough to ensure it never got out. Harry Shearer who saw a rough cut of the film said this about it: “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. “Oh, My God!”—that’s all you can say.”

Perhaps it was just a really, really bad movie. Or maybe it was a timing thing. See Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” came out while the horror was happening – the holocaust- but most of the world truly had no idea how excruciatingly horrible things were. (Chaplin would later claim that had he known the extent of the evils being perpetrated, he would have never made his film.) 30 years later, when Jerry Lewis made his attempt, it was a generation still trying to make sense of what many deemed urban legend, stories and whispers here and there, still not fully clear but steadily an undeniable open wound of tragedy and mass extinction.

And then “Shoah” came out, and a couple years later, “Schindler’s List”. The horror was real. Death camps. Genetic Experiments. Chemical Extermination. Not in the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands, but in the millions.

It’s impossible not to think of these things as you watch “Jojo Rabbit”. This is a Taika movie through and through, which means it’s full of irreverent humor, pathos and heart. Taika’s filmography thus far is pretty extraordinary going all the way back to his Oscar-nominated short “Two cars, one night”. He has this uncanny ability to take outlier characters and flood us with their idiosyncrasies yet somehow forge a connection between them and the audience despite these quirks, or indeed, through them. From irascible naturists in “Hunt For The Wilderpeople” to vampiric roommates in this decade’s funniest film, “What We Do In The Shadows”, we’re always immediately won over by the characters in Taika’s film because he knows how to bring us right into the heart of their worlds, meaning whatever happens around them, no matter how outlandish or surreal, we care because we’re connected to them.

“Jojo Rabbit” is no different. The story centres on a 10-year-old German boy so awash in Nazi propaganda that his imaginary best friend with whom he often converses is (his mind’s version of) Adolf Hitler. Now that should be funny, right? And often it is, it is, but it’s also kind of horrifying because even though Taika plays Hitler as impish and immature with an unmistakable soft spot for little Jojo (he gives him constant pep talks when Jojo gets bullied by fellow Hitler youth campers), it’s still a child’s version of Hitler at a time when the real Hitler is out there doing some truly horrendous stuff.

This point further hits home when we meet the true heart of the story: teen-aged Elsa, a Jewish girl who Jojo discovers has been hidden in his attic by his mom Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson). Elsa used to be friends with Jojo’s older sister who has since passed and when the war breaks out, Rosie takes pity on her partly because Rosie’s a closeted anti-fascist but also because Elsa reminds her of her own deceased daughter. We get an acute sense of the claustrophobia and terror faced by those in hiding, having no clue what’s become of their loved ones or the world outside those cramped spaces, even as Elsa (brilliantly portrayed by “Leave No Trace”’s Thomasin Mckenzie) puts on a brave face and toys with Jojo’s alarming espousals. Their interactions are truly the best part of this film.

The supporting cast is filled with lovable takedowns of Nazism, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and “Game of Thrones”’s Alfie Allen as a bumbling trio of Hitler Youth Camp Administrators, plus Stephen Merchant popping up in a hilarious yet excruciatingly tense scene as a Gestapo agent. In any other setting, this movie would absolutely pop and the critics seem to have been won over by it. Please note that the film does also fully embrace the dramatic aspects of the story and I’m trying not to touch on those cos I’ve spoiled enough at this point. Be warned though, it’ll absolutely break your heart.

I wanted to love “Jojo Rabbit” but did not. Taika’s made a valiant attempt to not simply poke fun at some very serious things (thank God he keeps his sights on the right targets and the jokes are never punching down or cheap) but the idea that it could even in part be a comedy is what didn’t sit well with me. Hitler in isolation or in an alternate reality can be funny, as Chaplin understood, transporting the moustachioed mass murderer to his fictional Empire of Tomainia. A movie about Nazis in Germany during the holocaust simply can’t be a comedy because it’s been 30 years since ‘Shoah” and “Schindler”. We now know beyond a shadow of a doubt what the punchline was or that, in fact, there was none.

You know what? Fuck that! Go see it. This is one where I seem to be in the minority and it really does have so much more to offer than the comedy aspects. If anything it’s just my expectation of what kind of film the trailer led me to believe it was that left me unfulfilled. The whole cast is fantastic and Thomasin Mckenzie is a fucking revelation in this! Go see it especially for her, Sam Rockwell and “Yorkie”.

7.5/10

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What do you think?

Written by Rich Wagaba

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