Director Taika Waititi has established himself in recent years as one of the film industry’s greatest comedy filmmakers. Not that there is much competition these days; he joins a peculiarly small list of successful modern comedy directors. This includes the likes of Edgar Wright, Adam McKay, and Judd Apatow. Perhaps there are a few more to mention, but it seems to me like we should admit something about the film genre nowadays. There isn’t much going on!
It wasn’t even that long ago that audiences were flocking to the theater for profanity-laden movies about screw-ups that finally begin to grow up. To be perfectly frank, it seems like the era of Will Ferrell and Seth Rogan are over. I guess people just don’t find the man child narrative very entertaining anymore.
My hypothesis for this downfall of that era of comedy is that it came some time in 2016. Now, I wonder what happened in that year that would’ve turned audiences off from watching likable doofuses improv lines about their genitals.
Maybe Donald J. Trump.
I know, it sucks that I have to bring this guy up right before diving into a comedy set in Nazi Germany. But I think it’s important to set the context for why JoJo Rabbit was made, especially in the current cultural climate.
After Trump, a tacky rich guy with a reality show, was elected president of the United States in 2016, comedy and satire changed. Here was this gross, sleazy character from a comedy film now controlling America’s military and ICE patrols. Children get locked in cages, neo Nazis march through the streets in support of the Confederacy, and mass shooters are crediting right wing rhetoric for their actions.
Turns out Vince Vaughn finding out he has to sit through four Christmases isn’t going to be entertaining enough to lighten the mood.
Audiences are quickly becoming more serious, more grim, more politically minded in a age of increased authoritarianism. Unfortunately, it seems most comedians and comedic filmmakers are floundering at the changing times.
Will Ferrell’s last big film, Holmes and Watson, was garbage. It reeked of man-child antics… and we’re kind of experiencing the consequences of that now. Judd Apatow hasn’t directed a major comedy since 2015’s Trainwreck. The Seth Rogen/James Franco team was shattered after the #MeToo Movement exposed some dark secrets on Franco’s part.
Both Edgar Wright and Adam McKay have managed to survive in today’s environment. Keep in mind, however, that Wright’s Baby Driver was an action film. And McKay’s Vice was more of a drama.
So, why is it that Taika Waititi’s movies are funnier to me than anything in the last five years? Why does this year’s JoJo Rabbit work so well in this day and age?
So, let’s take a look at JoJo Rabbit’s setting, as that is as important to this film’s comedy as it’s actors and writers.
Picture this: it’s the last few months of World War Two in Nazi Germany. Any objective observer can see that the regime is on it’s last legs. Some Germans see the writing on the wall, and are waiting for the conflict to finally end. Others are actively undermining the Nazis by spreading literature and hiding Jewish families. And then there are the fanatics… the Germans who are so deluded about their future that they couldn’t believed that Adolph Hitler would shoot himself in the head.
This self destructing world of tragedy and sadness apparently had some hilarious moments in it. The protagonist, JoJo (played by Roman Griffin Davis) is a little Hitler Youth member that is fully indoctrinated into the Reich’s propaganda.
JoJo is hilariously misinformed about a great many things, from his own sense of superiority to the superstitions about Jews. His imaginary friend, played by Waititi, is Adolph Hitler himself. Hitler is played mostly as a sort of goofy sidekick/mirror, reflecting all the thoughts going on in JoJo’s mind.
The film starts at Youth Camp, where the new generation of Nazi soldiers are raised. It then shifts to his home life with his mother, played by Marvel alum Scarlett Johanssen. The main conflict of the film begins when JoJo discovers that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the walls.
After being exposed to his supposed enemy for an extended length of time, he learns that she’s just a human being, and imaginary Hitler is wrong (surprise!). The last beats of the film are more dramatic than funny, as it goes from the death of JoJo’s mother to the climactic last battle versus the Allies. And the two kids emerge from the wreckage dancing together in the street.
The message goes deeper than, “Jews are actually just regular people”. The film is really about questioning your beliefs. It’s marketed as an “anti-hate satire”, but I think that description is a bit too simplistic.
Towards the start of the film, JoJo get into a brutal accident that hinders him from joining the army. He feels like a monstrous outcast, even if the lasting scars aren’t as ugly as he imagines. By that same token, he views Jews as monstrous outcasts as well. It’s not an overt thread, thankfully, but you can connect JoJo’s feelings of being different from the other Germans meld into a shared commonality with Elsa as outsiders.
Obviously, Elsa has it much worse, but it’s this situation that forces the two together. Eventually, JoJo starts to interact with her… at first as an ‘interrogation” for his planned expose on Jews. This eventually leads to regular conversations. Which leads to a friendship, which JoJo seems to not even realize. And, of course, he falls in love.
The film’s message is that hate, even deep-seated hate that’s been indoctrinated since childhood, can be undone through friendship and love. Towards the end of the movie, JoJo is caught up in a chaotic battle between the Nazis and America. He would have likely died had it not been for the growth of a conscience. He rejects the Nazis, and kicks imaginary Hitler out the window, Captain America style!
There’s a term for this: deprogramming. It is what happened to Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the hateful, cultish Westboro Baptist Church. She was born into a close-knit family that built a new religious sect on extreme acts of bigotry and anger, doing things from protesting military funerals to spreading anti-gay /anti-Jewish hate. They would make signs that read, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and say things like, “Jews are the real Nazis”.
Megan didn’t know any better… it was something her father, mother and grandfather believed in. It wasn’t until she was exposed to Twitter, where she could have conversations with people outside the Westboro Baptist Church. The man that convinced her to leave the Church eventually became her husband, who happens to own a blog entitled Jewlicious.
Today, Megan recently released a book detailing her experiences and eventually falling out with her family.
As you can see, this isn’t a hollow message lazily slapped on a goofy comedy. This is an example of communication with people you disagree with actually working.
This is a lesson for comedy filmmakers on how to make a successful comedic movie nowadays.
While the film has slapstick, it isn’t mindless physical comedy.
While the film has some dramatic moments, it’s not a dreary drama.
While it has a message, it isn’t beating the audience over the head with it.
Taika Waititi is seemingly an expert in balancing humor with serious material, and that happens to be what, in my opinion, modern audiences are waiting for.