Review: ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is charming, but muddled satire

This is a movie that should be right up my alley. It has an acclaimed comedic writer/director known for films that strike exactly the tone that taking on a difficult subject like the Nazis is suited for, with an all-star cast and a premise just out there enough to maybe sneak in some real lessons without the audience knowing.

And it almost works. That’s not to say that Jojo Rabbit is a bad film. It’s actually a fine film. It has more than a few big laughs and a couple of great performances, but it never quite gels into something more.

It’s frustrating, really. The pieces are all there. The story of the young boy Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) who has turned to the Hitler Youth in the absence of his father and the young Jewish woman Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in the walls of his house is a sweet one, but also nothing that we haven’t seen before. Davis and Thomasin are both good in their parts, Thomasin, in particular, is probably going places and they have a chemistry that is sincere and believable.

Jojo Rabbit
Thomasin McKenzie & Roman Griffin Davis / Jojo Rabbit

Many of the best scenes in the movie simply consist of the two of them talking, him trying to figure out if she’s the monster that Nazi propaganda has told him she should be.

Scarlett Johansson is refreshingly great as Jojo’s mother Rosie who spends the movie trying to convince her child to be a child. She brings with and charm to her role, and steals most of the scenes she’s in.

And then there is Taika Waititi himself playing Jojo’s imaginary friend Adolf. I’m not sure this role would have worked any other actor, but it doesn’t quite work with this one either. The story of Jojo overcoming his hate while contending with the literal head of the Nazis doesn’t take up as much screen time as you might have been led to believe, and while it mostly works it sort of works in spite of the setup and not because of it.

As the story progresses the Nazis are increasingly played for laughs, which is also not a bad idea, but as the film progresses it stops working as moments of more outright anti-semitism and evil are played for those same laughs.

So that’s the thing. Jojo Rabbit is a fine film. It has some good ideas, some great performances, but for a film to be great it needs to be more than the sum of its parts, and Jojo Rabbit is only exactly the sum of its parts.