If the awards were won based purely on audacity, without regard for outcome, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit would have the potential to win them all. This movie is a big swing in every direction: tonally, commercially, as subject matter, as career move. And when it works, it really works: there are some metaphorical visuals that are among the most powerful filmed images I’ve seen in a bountiful year of great moviegoing. But it doesn’t always work, and, unfortunately, some of the swings and misses really land with a thud: silence loud enough to make its presence known in the auditorium, silence that says, “Whoops, we all saw that.”
So points indeed for bold ambition, and I’m glad the film exists, not least for introducing us to an extraordinary young male actor, Roman Griffin Davis, who plays Jojo, a ten-year old boy at the tail end of WW2 who longs to be a Nazi but instead befriends a Jew. She’s played by Thomasin McKenzie, who already had her big coming out party in the form of Leave No Trace last year; here, she’s burdened by a German accent which seems trickier for her than an American one (she’s from New Zealand) but there’s no denying that the two young actors, whose scenes together comprise at least a third of the film, make for one of the year’s best love stories.
Outside of their rather isolated story, Waititi stages a Mel Brooks-style comedic assault on the Nazis that is sporadically rather than consistently funny. His deep supporting cast, including Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, Stephen Merchant and (in a weirdly brilliant role) Alfie Allen all have their moments, but they also all get dud gags that don’t work. Wilson in particular, perhaps limited by that German accent (she usually gets to keep her deep Aussie twang), struggles and often flails.
Scarlett Johansson is fine as Jojo’s mother – a kind of ‘straight man’ role amongst the satirical goofiness – and Waititi himself plays Jojo’s imaginary friend, Hitler. His performance is emblematic of the whole movie: it can be brilliant or really flat, often in the span of the same moment.