I was bothered by this title, just because I’ve been talking about this movie for about a year. That’s because I think New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi is a comedic genius. Two years in a row, his movies made it into my Top 5 for the year (Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do In The Shadows). I thought he tried a little too hard with the humor in Thor: Ragnarok, though.
Anyway, while talking about my anticipation of this for months, my friends kept asking me what I was talking about. That’s because I could never get the title right. Sometimes I called the movie “Jo Jo Gunn.” That’s a ‘70s band I dug (their hit was “Run Run Run”) with Jay Ferguson (who had a solo hit with “Thunder Island” and he did the theme song for the TV show The Office).
Only once did I call the movie Jo Jo White, after a Celtics player from the ‘70s. About the only Jojo I never confused it with was from the Beatles “Get Back.”
Now, to address the controversy around the film. Many people don’t realize that a large segment of society don’t think certain topics are appropriate fodder for films. For example, when movies started cropping up using 9/11 as a major plot point. And although many decades have passed since the Holocaust, many still don’t like films about it. Now, I thought Life is Beautiful...was beautiful. Yet I know a lot of Jewish people that were bothered by it. There’s even a Jewish film critic in town that hates Schindler’s List.
Oddly enough, I’ve never met anyone or read about someone bothered by the way Hitler and the Nazis were made fun of in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. I get why people would be bothered, but that doesn’t bother me, and it shouldn’t bother you. What bothered me more, is the fact that I’m such a Waititi fan, and I feel he gave us a movie that isn’t a biting enough satire; and it’s not a funny enough comedy. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy watching it (as did my wife, who liked it a lot more than I did). I was just expecting more from him.
He started things off brilliantly using the Beatles’ German-language version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and combining clips of Beatlemania fans, with Nazi Germany. A rather clever way of showing what fanaticism is like — whether it’s over a cute Beatles bassist or a mustachioed fuhrer. And Waikiti never lets us down with his musical choices. We hear some Roy Orbison, and an obscure ‘60s band I love called…well, Love with their upbeat song “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” He closes things out musically with Bowie’s German-language version of “Heroes.”
The film is based on the Christine Leunens novel Caging Skies.
Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a 10-year-old boy, who joins the Hitler Youth. The beginning of the movie has a Wes Anderson vibe (it felt like Moonrise Kingdom, and later, had more of a Budapest feel). Jojo is a bit awkward with other kids, and gets bullied. You don’t fault him for wanting to be a Nazi, because he’s too young to understand what they’re really about. His dad has bailed on the family, his sister died, but he has a doting mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). She always has encouraging words for the young lad, and whimsically dances with him when the spirit moves her. Both of them have secrets. His is that…he has an imaginary friend. It’s Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi). Hers is that…she’s hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic.
Perhaps some will be bothered by the fact that Hitler is a bit of an impish, naughty, goof-ball. He says things that will have the crowd laughing — “Correctamundo!” “You’re the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I ever met.” and my favorite of his lines was, “How’s it going with that Jew thing upstairs?”
Others might be offended by the fact that a girl living in the attic is too much like Anne Frank to put in a wacky comedy (or an “anti-hate satire” as it’s being billed).
Johannes gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit at the camp for Nazi youth. One of the older kids, sensing his trepidation on a few things, dares him to kill a rabbit. He refuses, and is taunted with the name.
War veteran Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) would rather be anywhere else, and he goes through the motions training the kids on various war techniques. His assistant is Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson). It would’ve been nice if she were given a bit more to do than sing Wagner.
Watching Klenzendorf start to care for the boy, and seeing how Jojo’s relationship with the girl changes, are both heartwarming.
In one scene that adds some tension, the Gestapo show up and the girl is in danger of being discovered. How that’s played out works well, and it’s always fun when Stephen Merchant shows up for comedic relief.
One scene that doesn’t have the tension it should, is when Jojo sees bodies hanging in the town square. Perhaps this is a lot harder to pull off when you’re combining wacky comedy, satire, and the horrors of the war.
The two kids in this gave outstanding performances and had great chemistry. Watching a 10-year-old boy write a fake letter supposedly from the girl’s boyfriend…was wonderful.
Johansson’s character didn’t feel like it was fleshed out enough. It’s almost like they had her for three days of filming, and rushed to get her scenes done.
The picture’s a bit uneven, and I yearned for a satire that was a bit more provocative. This is all about warm fuzzies and a few laughs. For a film that is getting such Oscar buzz, it’s a rather moderate affair.
And for such an inventive premise for a coming-of-age story by Waititi, I was just expecting more. Instead, he played it much too safe.
3 stars out of 5.
The day of the screening in San Diego, I opted to make the two hour drive to the screening in L.A., since Taika Waitiki was going to be there, with the two young stars of the film. I had planned on gushing over how brilliant he was. Wilderpeople and Shadows…both were among my favorites when they were released. I had so many things I wanted to talk with him about regarding those movies.
When the screening let out and we were led to an area with wine and cheeses, I saw him standing by himself. I was the first person to approach him, and I brought up the last thing I loved in Jojo Rabbit; playing the Arthur Lee song “Everybody’s Gotta Live.” I told him how much I loved the band Love, and how cool it was to hear that song. I said, “Yeah, Heroes is great, but a few movies have used that. I rarely hear Arthur Lee.”
He smiled and said, “I’ve wanted to use that song in the movie for years. I just kept hoping nobody else would use it before this got made.”
I told him that the few times I saw them in concert, he’d play Everybody’s Gotta Live, and in the middle, he’d throw in a few verses from Lennon’s Instant Karma and the crowd would go nuts. Waitiki then talked about a version of the song he heard done acoustically and how much he loved it.
As we talked about music for a few minutes, I noticed a few other critics in the crowd were standing nearby, looking like they wanted to talk with him. And having once been at a film festival where a critic wouldn’t stop bugging Warren Beatty to let me get a word in…I merely thanked him for the great movies, and told him I’d talk to him later. I threw in the fact that when the San Diego Film Critics Society voted What We Do In The Shadows as “best original screenplay” he tweeted out that he didn’t know who we are, but we were great. He laughed and corrected me on what the tweet actually said, saying “I added that you guys must be a really smart group.”
It was cool that he remembered that, as that was five years ago, and he’s done a friggin’ Marvel movie since then. Our Film Critics group was thrilled when that tweet went out, as we were still voting for some of the other categories for that year.
As I devoured some meats and cheeses, a woman came over to me and said, “Would you like to meet Roman Griffin Davis?”
I put down my cheese, wiped off my hand, and shook his tiny hand. I said, “You were amazing in that film! I can’t remember a younger actor moving me as much since Jacob Tremblay in Room.”
He beamed a big smile and said, “Thank you.” After a brief pause he jokingly said, “I should get an Oscar, huh?”
I laughed and as I started to say something he said, “I’m just joking. I didn’t really mean that.”
I asked if it was hard to cry on set, and if he thinks of something sad that happened in his life to channel that. He replied, “No. I tried that and it didn’t really work. So, I just kind of got into the story, and thought about what was happening in that and it helped me get emotional.”
He talked about how he’s been acting for two years and how he went on so many auditions and got nowhere. I told him, “Well, you’re going to be going somewhere now. This performance is going to get you recognized by everyone.”
I then noticed Thomasin McKenzie standing behind me. She looked so much younger in person. My wife told her we liked her performance in Leave No Trace. As great as she was in that, I didn’t care for the movie (we left that part out). I did say, “What frustrated me so much about Leave No Trace is…your dad (Ben Foster) just didn’t realize what would be best for you growing up. It got hard to watch.”
She replied, “That’s the point. He had been through so much and was suffering.”
I interrupted to say, “I know, I get that. He had PTSD and everything.”
She talked more about the movie, and when I asked about filming Jojo Rabbit she said, “Filming in Berlin was tough, because they only let kids film for three hours a day.” She told me they did some of the filming in other places, but I forgot where she said they went.
I ended up at a table with some other L.A. critics. I was giving Scott Mantz a hard time for liking Gemini Man. I said, “It was because he wore a Phillies cap, wasn’t it?” He laughed and said, “Ya know what? I asked him [Will Smith] if he added that, and he told me it was already in the script.”
Leonard Maltin came over to say hi, and we talked about being on a critics’ panel together at the Coronado Film Festival a few years ago (he’ll be back there hosting festivities again in a few weeks).
I asked Mrs. Maltin, who is Jewish, if anything about Jojo Rabbit offended her. She said, “No. I loved it. Nobody got upset when they made fun of Hitler in The Producers and nobody should be upset by this.”