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‘Jojo Rabbit’ is a biting satire of the inanity at the heart of Nazism

Jojo Rabbit is a biting satire of the inanity at the heart of Nazism, embodied in a 10-year-old German boy at the height of World War II. It’s also a heart-warming tale of how this 10-year-old Nazi comes to grips with his racist, nationalist ignorance.

The awkward and uneasy tension between “biting satire” and “heart-warming tale” is the central dilemma facing any viewer of Jojo Rabbit. By trying to satisfy on both counts, the film falls short of attaining either perfectly. Nevertheless, the effort succeeds far more often than it fails, making more than a few good points and eliciting more than a few good laughs along the way.

Jojo’s father is off fighting in the war, so Jojo and his mother have to get by without him as best they can in their small German town. Especially without his dad around, Jojo’s a rather lonely kid, so he invents, like a lot of kids do, an imaginary friend.

But, his imaginary friend is Adolph Hitler. A brain-washed Hitler Youth’s idea of Adolph Hitler, but Hitler all the same.

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After a particularly tough time at Hitler Youth boot camp, where Jojo is unwilling to strangle a rabbit with his bare hands and gets mocked mercilessly for it, he runs off in tears. Who is there to comfort him? His imaginary friend, of course, Adolph.

“What’s wrong little man?” Adolph asks.

“They called me a scared rabbit,” Jojo responds.

“Let them say what they want. People used to say a lot of nasty things about me. ‘Oh this guy’s a lunatic. Oh look at that psycho, he’s going to get us all killed.'”

To Jojo’s 10-year-old ears, Hitler says all the right things. To the rest of us, the humor is obvious: The joke is at Hitler’s expense. He’s a complete and utter idiot, an idiot only a dummkopf could believe in. Or a naive 10-year-old boy.

“I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism,” he says after a stranger offers a “heil.”

A silly, ridiculous Fuhrer may be too toxic a notion for some to even entertain. But if you can accept the movie’s premise that perhaps the popularity of a tyrant, any tyrant, is merely the manifestation of a public’s stunted intellectual growth, then the film may pack a more potent punch than what you might expect from a string of jokes at the tyrant’s expense. The humor is bracing and caustic.

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Jojo Rabbit also has a strong, humanistic streak that sometimes clashes with its dark humor. Jojo’s mother, played by Scarlett Johansson, is not the blinkered Nazi Jojo assumes her to be. She bemoans his fanaticism, the loss of his childhood, and even tries preaching the gospel of love to him.

“Someday you’ll meet someone special,” she says. “Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

When Jojo unexpectedly meets a real-life Jewish girl who’s in hiding, he begins to question the hard-fast “truths” about Jews he knows by heart. She looks so normal, she sounds so reasonable, and where are her horns?

Jojo also struggles to comprehend some of the brutal truths of Nazi Germany, like the daily hangings that take place in their town square. Who are these people and what have they done to deserve such a horrible fate?

Jojo can’t properly process the horrors he witnesses. But, crucially, neither can the film itself. Actual and personal tragedy fits uneasily into the rather broad, farcical nature of most of the movie. The tone and structure of the film precludes the possibility of any serious emotional resonance, even though the movie seems to ask for it. That ask is just too big, too daunting for this satire to pull off.

Jojo Rabbit starts out as hard-bitten satire but wanders into some surprisingly sentimental territory before it’s through. By movie’s end, its heart is in the right place, I suppose, but its distinctive sense of humor isn’t and that’s something of a shame.

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