Jojo Rabbit: A Black Comedy that Lampoons the Third Reich

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Directed by Taika Waititi
Fox Searchlight, 108 minutes, PG-13 (mild language)

It’s been 76 years since the end of World War Two but in some circles, Adolf Hitler remains the third rail of comedy. Numerous reviewers have frothed themselves into a moral lather over Jojo Rabbit and have accused New Zealand director Taika Waititi of glorifying Nazism. That’s absolute rubbish. Waititi’s father is Maori and his mother, Robin Cohen, is of English/Russian/Jewish descent. Waititi embraces both parts of his heritage and his film is a black comedy/drama that explores both the absurdities of anti-Semitism and how easily the flames of fanaticism can be flamed.

It is hard to find humor in the horrors of Nazi Germany, but Waititi is up to something more subversive than kneejerk revulsion: he delegitimizes fascists by painting them as destructive clowns. He is hardly the first to do so. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) made Hitler into a buffoon, as did Mel Brooks in The Producers (1967). Others had their crack at throwing a cream pie in the Fuhrer’s face: Donald Duck, The Three Stooges, TV’s Hogan’s Heroes, Marvel Comics, and movies such as The Boys from Brazil (1978), Life is Beautiful (1997), and Inglorious Basterds (2009).

Jojo Rabbit centers on 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis). It is late 1944 and Jojo is enrolled in a Hitler Youth (HY) group. He dresses the part and tries to be a good little Nazi; he even has an imaginary friend: Hitler (Waititi), who appears from time to time to give Jojo advice, though he is an absurd fool who gets caught in his own contradictions. Jojo goes off to a HY camp and mouths all the right slogans, but he and his real friend, the pudgy Yorki (Archie Yates), are inept at being fascist badasses. When one-eyed Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) and his second-in-command Finkel (Alfie Allen) try to whip the boys into a sanguinary froth, Jojo cannot bring himself to slaughter a bunny and thus acquires his unflattering handle, “Jojo Rabbit.” The HY camp foibles immediately put me in mind of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom done up in Nazi drag. Waititi is often compared to Anderson, though earlier Waititi offerings such Eagle vs Shark, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and Boy are quirkier.

The first quarter of Jojo Rabbit might distress overly sensitive viewers. Despite his clumsiness, Jojo continues to spout fascist ideals, including making hateful remarks about Jews. Stay with it. Jojo’s mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a lighthearted optimist, tempers Jojo by paying scant attention to the war and deflects politics and queries about Jojo’s absent father. Much to Jojo’s shock, she is also secretly harboring a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). As is often the case, hatred is easier in the abstract than in the flesh. Jojo must face two major dilemmas. If the Gestapo finds out, his mother will be arrested. Plus, Jojo is strangely drawn to Elsa, even though he’s scared of her. Some of the film’s darkest humor comes when Elsa deliberately sabotages Jojo’s efforts to find out what Jews are “really” like so he can compile his discoveries into an illustrated book.

Jojo Rabbit takes touching and poignant turns, though there’s no sentimentality wasted on the Nazis. Klendendorf is a sloppy drunk, Finkle a bumbling tag along, and Gestapo agents like something from a Monty Python sketch. Jojo Rabbit also evokes Armando Iannucci’s comedy The Death of Stalin (2017). Isn’t it odd how few critics said it was wrong to satirize Stalin, who was also a mass murderer? In my view, Waititi gets right what Anderson and Iannucci failed to achieve. Anderson is often so droll that he valorizes detached hipsterism, and Iannucci stumbled when trying to redo Soviet politics as a comedic 1984. By contrast, Waititi imbues Jojo, Elsa, Rosie, Yorki, and a few surprise others with humanity.

The film is also crisply acted from top to bottom. Roman Griffin Davis is quite a find. At times his intensity is such that we can see how propaganda can warp even a child, yet Davis turns on a dime to make us understand that a child parroting bad things is still just a child–one who can cry over a bunny, live in a fantasy world, and learn how to differentiate good from evil. McKenzie–last seen in Leave No Trace, my favorite film of 2018–also shows great range; she is, at turns, furtive, fierce, frightened, and tender. Both Rockwell and Johansson chow down on their roles–in good ways–by turning on and off the humor/drama spigots as needed. Yates is like a bespectacled Teddy bear; Allen–Theon in Game of Thrones–and Rebel Wilson as Fraulein Rahm have bit roles that they make seem much bigger.

Despite the film’s outward content, it is indeed a comedy, but of the variety in which we laugh at horrible things lest we sink into despair. Waititi ultimately flashes his middle digits at fascists past and present by exposing them for what they are: fanatics and fools who ultimately fall. Even a 10-year-old can understand that! For what it’s worth, there is little that drives the grandson of German immigrant and Mussolini act-alike Donald Trump(f) to cold fury as those who refuse to take him seriously.

Rob Weir



Classic Films: Bringing Up Baby

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Directed by Howard Hawks
RKO Radio Studios, 102 minutes, Not rated.

This classic film is #88 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American films and it ranks high of my favorite list of screwball comedies. If you don’t know the genre, it was one that messed with traditional gender roles back in the 1930s and 1940s–long before today’s gender-benders were born. Screwball comedies often subverted traditional romances by immersing them in farcical situations in which the scripted gender roles of the day were flipped and further assaulted by barrages of witty repartee. Screwball comedies were the template for battle of the sexes movies; smart money was usually on the woman.

One of the delights of Bringing Up Baby is the demasculinization of Cary Grant. In this movie he is a nerdy paleontologist busily assembling a brontosaurus skeleton that lacks but one bone for completion. We see Grant as David Huxley puttering about in his lab coat and heavy-rimmed black glasses, and being led like a bull by a nose ring by his fiancée Alice Swallow (Virginia Swallow). The two plan to marry later that evening, but a chance golf course encounter with Susan Vance (Katherine Hepburn) will change all of that. Susan is a ditsy, fast-talking, accident-prone socialite who decides on the spot that she is in love with David. We don’t really know why, but screwball comedies are all about situations, not logic.

You want situations? This film has them in spades: a cheetah named Baby, a bone-loving dog named George, a wealthy aunt (May Robson), an alleged big-game hunter (Charles Ruggles), a befuddled constable (Walter Catlett), a pair of inept circus roustabouts, and Grant cavorting about in a frilly dressing gown. You are not meant to take any of this seriously. Bringing Up Baby is essentially a drawing room comedy that opens its doors so that the loonies can cavort both inside and out. Like said drawing room comedies, the humor is broad and ridiculous, as is the very notion of a conventional romance. Bringing Up Baby is goofy and charming–a film I watch every few years simply because it makes me giggle and smile.

Bringing Up Baby also reminds me of Marx Brothers films in that it takes the air out of a wide assortment of stuffy people and authority figures. The jailhouse scenes are kind of dumb if you think about them, but don’t! Law enforcement figures, attorneys, scientists, the monied classes, and psychiatrists take it on the chin in Bringing Up Baby and everything comes at you with machine gun pacing that’s designed to keep you off your stride. Director Howard Hawks is usually considered the second greatest of the screwball comedy directors (after Frank Capra). Watch enough screwballs and you’ll recognize that Hawk is playing to certain formulae, one aspect of which is that he aims for the funny bone, not your intellect. After all, David begins this film as a very serious man and it’s Susan’s zaniness that saves him from that burden–not to mention what would have been a dull, listless marriage to Alice.

A caution: This is a 1938 film, so there are a few references that might trouble the overly PC individual. Early on Grant utters the phrase, “That’s awfully white of you,” a now-inappropriate way of saying you’re a standup person. Just cringe and let it go. You may have a harder time with Barry Fitzgerald’s send-up of a stereotypical Irish gardener with a fondness for drink, but in screwball comedies pretty much everyone is lampooned.

Be wary of reading anything into this film other than playing for laughs. Grant galivanting about in a dressing gown is sometimes extrapolated by those who claim he was actually a closeted gay man. This was a charge raised by Scotty Bowman in The Secret Life of Hollywood and builds off of rumors that Grant and Randolph Scott were lovers. Grant’s daughter doubts said stories and Grant had five wives in his lifetime—a lot of trouble and alimony to pay if these were just beards. But, really, who cares? The best route is to let Baby, George, Susan, and David expose the absurdity of worrying too much about propriety.

Rob Weir


Madness of Sunshine a Page-Turner for Winter

A Madness of Sunshine (December 3, 2019)
By Nalini Singh
Berkley/Penguin, 352 pages.

Nalini Singh is well known for her fantasy and paranormal romance novels, but she surprises with A Madness of Sunshine, a crime/mystery offering.

It is set in the fictional hamlet of Golden Cove on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Golden Cove is a suburb of Greymouth–if a place of fewer than 10,000 souls can have ‘burbs. It’s such a small place that Greymouth seems large and Christchurch (381,500) three hours to the east is a veritable metropolis. New Zealand’s West Coast is remote—its southern access cut off by myriad fjords and inlets and access from the east made difficult by the Southern Alps, which form the spine of the South Island. Remote towns are, however, often more socially cohesive than larger places. In Golden Cove, most people know and look out for each other. It’s also a place where Maori–New Zealand’s first human settlers–and Pakeha (whites) enjoy mutual tolerance, even when it’s not genuine affection. Her hometown is a perfect place for native daughter and world-renowned pianist Anahera (Rawiri) Spencer-Ashby to recover from the triple shocks of burnout, her husband’s death, and the discovery of his philandering.

Not even her oldest friend Josie (“Jo”), who runs the local café, can believe that “Ana” has returned after more than a decade of living in London, though she and her resourceful husband Tom do all they can to prepare her mother’s old cabin for Ana’s occupancy. Other than summertime hikers, Golden Cove isn’t the kind of place that outsiders seek. One of the few new residents since Ana last visited is Will Gallagher, who has been the local law enforcement officer for just three months. Mostly, Ana finds that Golden Cove is much as she left it, ­except that her former cohort is now in their 30s and 40s and those she knew as children are now young adults. The latter includes Miriama “Miri” Hinewai Tutaia, who at 21 is both locally beloved and jaw-dropping gorgeous.

Ana is hardly settled in before Miri goes jogging and disappears. Is she lying at the foot of a trailside cliff? Was she swept to sea while running too close to a dangerous tide? Was she abducted? After several pass, Will is forced to investigate Miri’s disappearance as a possible crime. He learns quickly that 15 years earlier three female hikers disappeared near Golden Cove and all that was ever discovered of any of them was a water bottle, a backpack, and a bracelet. It was never clear if any crime actually occurred back then, but Will’s conclusion is distressing: If Miri’s disappearance and those of 15 years ago are linked, it’s highly probable that someone in Golden Cove is a serial killer.   

Another thing about small towns is that there are often skeletons residing in seldom-discussed closets. Miri’s Aunt Matilda, who raised her, has a history of inappropriate boyfriends, one of whom molested Miri when she was young. No one knows his current whereabouts, but Matilda’s current live-in Steve is pretty much low-life scum. Will’s closet friend in town, Nikau Martin, also has a rap sheet from his younger days and he’s very angry that his ex-wife Keira threw him over for Daniel May, a rich boy with lots of toys but little love for the locals. The deeper Will and Ana dig, the more Golden Cove’s luster fades. The Baker family is also rich. Vincent seems beyond reproach, a politician many assume will be a future Prime Minister of New Zealand. Ana, though, picks up on the fact that his spouse, Jemima, seems more of a trophy wife than a love match. More suspicious is Vincent’s younger brother Kyle, a spoiled brat who harbors a grudge that Miri beat him out for a prestigious Christchurch photography internship that she planned to begin in weeks. And what does one wish to make of Shane Hennessey, an Irish ex-pat writer who, for years, has been more prolific at attracting a cult-like harem of barely legal young women than of producing noteworthy poetry or prose. The other wildcard is Dr. Dominic de Souza, Miri’s straight arrow boyfriend. No one can quite figure out what the high-spirited Miri sees in him. Did he find out she was seeing someone else?

Everyone seems to have a shadowy past, including Ana, whose traumatic family life was such that one wonders why she would want to be in the same time zone as the South Island. And there’s Will himself, once cast as a cop hero. What did he do to earn banishment to a backwater like Golden Cove? A Madness of Sunshine is a page-turner mystery. I should say that I figured out the mystery before it was revealed, which generally tells me the story could have been more complex. I also found the title clichéd and histrionic. There is a sense that Ms. Singh ran out of steam toward the end and wrapped up things too quickly and neatly. Still, her novel is in the best everyone-has-scars tradition and I enjoyed remembering my time in the greater Greymouth area. (Okay, I loved nearby Hokitika but Greymouth is forgettable!)

A Madness of Sunshine releases on December 3. That’s early summer in New Zealand. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, A Madness of Sunshine makes for diverting reading as the days grow shorter.

Rob Weir

Note on Maori pronunciation: Maori words often appear daunting, but they are fairly easy to approximate if you remember that Maori seldom contains stressed syllables. The usual rule is to sound out every two letters unless vowels appear adjacent to each other, in which case you elide them. Hokitika is (roughly) Ho-ke-te-ka. Nikau is a bit like Nik-ow.