Smile Hitler! Anti-fascism satire Jojo Rabbit struggles with tone

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      Starring Taika Waititi. Rated PG

      Certainly the best known Jewish-Maori filmmaker to come from the Antipodes, Taika Waititi moves from Thor: Ragnarok into Roberto Benigni territory with this tone-jumping satire of life in the waning days of a fascist nation. And the movie definitely draws some obvious lessons from what happened to the Nazi empire when too many people got sucked into an insane cult of personality. 

      Set in an unnamed German city (although actually shot in Prague) near the end of World War II, Jojo Rabbit takes its name from easily frightened 10-year-old Johannes Betzler, played by preternaturally talented Roman Griffin Davis, an Anglo-French boy making his acting debut. Jojo earns that sobriquet at a Hitler Youth retreat in which he fails to kill a bunny on command. The group leader is played by Sam Rockwell, assisted by Rebel Wilson as his top Nazette, so that gives you an idea of the tricky mix of styles here, something like Moonrise Kingdom-meets-The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

      Jojo yearns to be fanatical fascist, but can’t quite pull it off. So he resorts to frequent internal pep talks from none other than Der Führer, played convincingly by Waititi himself. His Hitler is a self-centred buffoon (“Aren’t you going to heil me, kid?”) whose unhinged tendencies are gradually revealed as the boy begins to recognize the true horror of racism and war. 

      Jojo’s father and sister are absent, for unexplained reasons—among many other loose ends here—so his questioning nature comes largely from a free-spirit mother, played by Scarlett Johansson in a performance more committed than grounded in reality. More pointedly, his ideological underpinnings are removed by the discovery of Elsa, a Jewish teenager hiding in the attic. (Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie bears no small resemblance to Anne Frank.)

      The director declares his irreverence early, with plenty of anachronistic dialogue and slapstick set pieces. Indeed, his soundtrack starts with the Beatles and ends with David Bowie, both singing in German.

      The movie will offend some people, and bore others with its obvious targets, but the bigger problem is that Waititi doesn’t know what to do with his premise in the long middle section, which depends on comparatively routine conversations between Jojo and Elsa. Things pick up again at the end, with an unexpectedly hard-edged depiction of the German endgame.

      All the kids are great, though, and there are plenty of quirky bits. But it’s odd that the fictional Führer keeps offering the boy cigarettes. Hitler hated smoking, declaring the habit terrible for your health!