The 1997 Italian film Life is Beautiful was released to widespread success. It became one of the highest grossing non-English language films, won 3 Oscars and numerous other awards at a variety of festivals and awards shows, and received strong praise for its ability to be funny yet haunting while tackling a story set against the horrors of the Holocaust. Still, the film was not without its detractors and many thought its handling of genocide using comedic elements was done in poor taste and served to undermine the integrity of the film and the seriousness of the subject. Though I personally don’t feel that way about the film – it was clearly made with the best of intentions and it is legitimately moving – I can certainly see how it would rub some people the wrong way. Now more than ever, having seen Jojo Rabbit.
Of course, director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit was also made with a big heart and noble goals and the claims to the contrary often border on absurd and in one particularly notable case (if you know, you know), they take a full dive into lunacy. It’s honestly baffling that anyone could really truly believe that Waititi, a Jewish man would intentionally write and direct a film portraying Adolf Hitler in a positive light. Unfortunately, Jojo Rabbit is often quite reductive and lacking in anything beyond the surface level. It presents itself as a satire on par with any of the greats but its message is so simplistic that it requires no great lengths be taken in the presentation and it lacks any of the biting intelligence that makes the best satires work. Further, and perhaps worst of all, the majority of the film was painfully unfunny.
There were a few laughs to be had, sure. The anti-Semitic ideas that some of the characters believed was so ridiculous that there was really little course of action other than letting out a brief chuckle but, by the same token, though ludicrous, these were often real ideas that real people actually held, and the occurrance of that thought mid-laughter always put a damper on those few moments that did seem to deliver on the promise of comedy. Early on, Jojo’s imaginary friend, a version of Hitler, was the main comedic focus but always drew away from the film’s forward movement, and the amount of times a winking remark about Hitler’s crimes could be well used for the same comedic effect was tested strongly. It was a relief to see him fade into the background later on but his replacements were similarly ridiculous and lacking in insight.
Though the film seems only exist to say that Nazis are bad (which is such an obviously true assertion that I often wondered why another film would be made to say that alone without at least seriously trying to draw some sorts of parallels), it seemed determined to not stick to its one central message. Just about every Nazi character that has any substantial presence in the film, with the exception of Hitler who wasn’t even a character but a figment of Jojo’s imagination, had a moment where they were seemingly redeemed. The idea that all people are good deep down inside is a heartwarming one, but when it comes to actual Nazis, it doesn’t hold a lot of weight. If the film tries to say anything about modern times, it is that the modern equivalents of the worst people are simply misunderstood and misguided and should be redeemed. As someone that would’ve been sent to a concentration camp had I lived in that place and time, I’m not terribly inclined to give the generous interpretation to the motivations of the Nazis new or old.
Ultimately, Jojo Rabbit plays everything far too safe to say anything of note. It compromises by appealing to those it should be trying to put down, it asks the audience to feel good about the worst things, and it fails to use any of the great talent behind the film to do anything beyond attract a few more viewers. Still, the occasional charms that won it the Grolsch People’s Choice Award, and very well may push it to success at the Academy Awards, are impossible to ignore and as disappointing as the film is, it’s hard to outright hate it.