If I were to tell you that one of the best comedies of the year would feature Adolf Hitler as a main character, you probably wouldn’t believe me.
But believe! Because not only is JO JO RABBIT (2019) one of the best comedies of the year, it’s also one of my favorite movies of the year.
JO JO RABBIT is the story of a young boy named Jo Jo (Roman Griffin Davis) who during the waning days of World War II not only wants to be in Hitler’s army but also idolizes the Nazi leader, so much so that his imaginary friend is none other than Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself. He gets the nickname Jo Jo Rabbit when during his youth soldier training he refuses to kill a rabbit, and the officers make fun of him, calling him first a coward and then “Jo Jo Rabbit.”
When Jo Jo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house, he is at first outraged, but then as he gets to know her through their subsequent conversations, his feelings change, so much so that he finds himself questioning the Nazi doctrine.
JO JO RABBIT is an unusual movie. It’s also a terrifically fun and comedic one. The scenes between Jo Jo and his imaginary Adolf are flat-out hilarious. Writer/director Taika Waititi has a field day with the role, making this one of the most unlikely characterizations of Hitler on-screen ever. Waititi channels equal parts Mike Myers and Michael Palin, and even some Tom Hanks in his completely inane and hysterical take on the character. When asked why he would ever consider playing Hitler, Waititi, who is Jewish, answered, “What better way to say f*ck you to the guy?” And he’s right.
Young Roman Griffin Davis is astounding as Jo Jo. He pretty much carries this movie, and that’s saying a lot for a film that features a strong veteran cast.
Equally as good as Davis is Thomasin McKenzie as Elsa, the young Jewish girl hiding inside Jo Jo’s home. She is responsible for teaching Jo Jo some truths about life, including that he’s just a kid and not a Nazi. McKenzie stood out in last year’s LEAVE NO TRACE (2018) in which she co-starred with Ben Foster. I may have enjoyed her more here in JO JO RABBIT.
Scarlett Johansson delivers a spirited performance as Jo Jo’s mother Rosie. The two share some of the movie’s best scenes, certainly its most poignant ones, as the film speaks on what it’s like to be a single parent, but don’t expect strife and pain. Johansson’s Rosie is a strong character who is more than up to the task of raising her son on her own, even as she secretly works to take on the Nazis.
Likewise, Sam Rockwell— as he always is— is excellent as quirky Nazi officer Captain Klenzendorf who at times seems as if he walked off the set of the old HOGAN’S HEROES TV show. But there’s also a sincerity to Klenzendorf in his relationship with young Jo Jo that transcends comedic caricature.
And if Klenzendorf hearkens from HOGANS HEROES, Rebel Wilson’s Nazi Fraulein Rahm could easily have walked off the set of a Mel Brooks movie.
And young Archie Yates is exceptional as Yorki, Jo Jo’s second best friend— after Adolf. Yates and Davis share some tender scenes and some hilarious ones.
The screenplay by Taika Waititi, based on a novel by Christine Leunens, is nonstop hilarious. The film works not only as an energetic comedy and satire, but also as a moving drama that looks at the human condition and explores the relationship between Jo Jo and his mother, and more importantly, between Jo Jo and Elsa.
Some may argue that a movie like this may promote pro-Nazi views, and that some folks may not get the joke that these people are being made fun of, but the film combats that notion on two fronts. One, the Nazis here are portrayed as over-the-top buffoons, and two, the love of the Nazis is seen through the innocent eyes of a young boy, who with the experience of getting to know a young Jewish girl realizes how backwards and false those views are. In essence, as the story goes along, Jo Jo falls out of love with Adolf and in love with Elsa.
The film is clear in its repudiation of the Nazi agenda, as not only is Elsa a voice against Nazism, but so is Jo Jo’s mother Rosie, and to a lesser extent Captain Klenzendorf.
Taika Waititi, who also directed THOR: RAGNORAK (2017), and is known more for films like BOY (2010) and WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2014) has hit a home run here with JO JO RABBIT. Everything about this one works, from its sharp satire, to its frequent laugh out loud moments, to its touching message on the human condition, which is simply put, that love conquers all, and that we are here to love each other, not kill each other.
The film is also shot in bright vibrant colors, giving Nazi Germany a celebratory feel, which goes against the many gray newsreels from history, the point being that ordinary German citizens thought everything was going great. They believed they were living the dream, while others who secretly fought back, realized their government was misguided and working against human rights and decency. So Nazi Germany in JO JO RABBIT is shown as a happy place, where the Nazi agenda operated in the shadows.
It’s not every day that you come across a comedy that satirizes Nazism successfully, but JO JO RABBIT makes it look easy.
As such, it’s one of my favorite movies of the year.