New Zealand's TaikA Waititi is a gifted and flamboyant humorist. His 2014 comedy What We Do in the Shadows satirized a pop-culture fad by imagining a reality-TV style portrait of vampires living in close quarters. His Aussie connections helped him land in the director's chair for Thor: Ragnarok. And his vision for that film, alongside star Chris Hemsworth's, helped transform the sober Shakespearian branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hatched under director Kenneth Branaugh) into a candy-colored sci-fi comedy that's more akin to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy than Captain America or Iron Man.
Waititi is still happily riding the MCU jumbo-gravy-jet – he's directing the next Thor installment, Love and Thunder, slated for a 2021 release – and now has the artistic and budgetary freedom to make higher-dollar versions of films that adhere to his comedic bent. Publicists are calling his newest film, JoJo Rabbit, which opens Friday, an "anti-hate satire." It takes place at the tail end of WWII and follows a fanatical young nationalist, JoJo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he discovers a Jewish teenage girl (Thomasin McKenzie) hidden in his home. Through this budding friendship, JoJo confronts his wildly misconceived prejudices.
The narrative arc is ultimately full of sadness and sweetness and sentimentality, and is anchored by the performances of its young stars, but it's vexed by the film's zany, slapstick tone. JoJo sometimes feels as discordant as a mashup between Space Balls and The Diary of Anne Frank. (The production design and cinematography also recall Wes Anderson's meticulous, decorative work.)
The nonstop gags are by turns clever and tiresome. And thanks to Waititi's experience with the MCU, the action sequences, including the climactic allied victory, are spectacularly staged and composed, often for humorous effect.
But the script left me feeling deeply uneasy. Not only, in a macro sense, has the constant cinematic recreations of WWII made Hitler seem more like a character than a man, but in this particular comic representation, one wonders whether Hitler and the nationalistic hatred he fomented have been effectively satirized.
I was moved to ask a version of the same question after last year's VICE, in which Christian Bale's portrayal of Dick Cheney humanized the arch-neoconservative so thoroughly that it was easy to forgot the film was supposed to be skewering him. JoJo is a much funnier script. And Hitler is portrayed, by Waititi himself, as a lonely and insecure imaginary friend. The opening Sig Heil sequence makes for a high-energy entrée into the absurdity and idiocy of Nazi fanaticism. Throughout, we see Jewish people described in dehumanizing language so over-the-top that it can't be anything but satire, right? Jews have horns, the young Nazis are taught; they were born in caves; they feast on human flesh; their brains are controlled by Satan himself.
But other than seeing Jewish sympathizers hanged in the town square, we rarely see what these idiotic views led to: genocide, namely.
It's an extremely tight tightrope.