Satire makes you cry | Daily News


Jojo Rabbit

Satire makes you cry

There’s an impenetrable layer of satire in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit that brings it to the level of a Wes Anderson comedy and a Quentin Tarantino gore-fest. I haven’t seen this much blood and masochist-indulgent violence since Inglourious Basterds. The movie aestheticises violence to such an extent that, given its historical setting, it takes some time for you to adjust to it. Audiences can be forgiven if, even after the story ends, they haven’t got used to the one-liners, buffooneries, and gung-ho bloodshed. The director expects us to take to his vision of madness: he deludes himself into thinking that we’ll buy it, and he proceeds to numb our emotions. After a point, Jojo Rabbit becomes a Tarantino-esque Anderson satire: it brings to mind Moonrise Kingdom in particular. And then, just when you think you know how it will end and what will happen to the characters, the credits roll, leaving you more disgruntled. A film like this happens only once in a while. It’s the sort a director makes after he gets enough money to do so. And Watiti made Thor: Ragnarok three years ago.

Jojo Rabbit isn’t apologetic about violence in much the same way that Tarantino and Stanley Kubrick weren’t apologetic about it in their work. It doesn’t revel in the gore, the bigotry, or the sexuality, yet it holds these out and wrings laughter from audiences. Watiti wants it both ways: a satire that makes us cry. Sure, there are moments in even the most comedic satires – an oxymoron, as satires are meant to be comedic – where you step back and contemplate on the deeper meaning, where the laughter stops and the tears begin.

But in Jojo Rabbit those tears never lead us to that kind of contemplation. The only sequence where we actually weep, when the boy finds out that his mother has been hanged, doesn’t lead to a catharsis. The boy doesn’t let out his frustration. Instead he returns home and stabs the Jewish girl his mother had hidden in a secret room. The girl, as expected, comforts him. And so, in the final scene, when after the Russians have defeated the Nazis the two of them dance a jig – a scene right out of an Anderson tableau – you pray for the mother; even with its vision of mad abandon, it’s inadequate to impose on us the sense of barely concealed horror the sequence contains. It’s escapism of the muddled sort.

Part of the problem, I think, is the contradiction between the tragic and the satirical aspects of the story. Watiti doesn’t want to deny the satire, even when he’s undressing the wounds and showing us the carnage; he plays it safe, and cloaks the carnage, barely visible though it may be. Great satire doesn’t have to hide the tragic implications of the object of satire, and given that the Nazis have lent themselves to parody and satire in so many, almost countless ways – from Chaplin to Tarantino – it’s interesting to see if Watiti can pull off the impossible: make us forget those tragic implications while pushing us to admire the comedy and the bathos. Watiti himself is, if not a great director, then a great storyteller; he’s also a clownish actor, as his rendition of Hitler makes it clear. But the achievement of Jojo Rabbit – how it subsumes the tragedy under the bathos – is also its failure.

The movie, despite this, works wonderfully. The cast is just about right. Scarlett Johansson as the hero-boy’s mother gives probably her best performance – an Oscar nominated one – since Woody Allen’s Match Point, while Sam Rockwell (Moon, Vice) gives his best Gary Oldman impression: leering eyes, muffled voice, eternal frown.

The real hero, however, is Roman Griffin Davis, who gives us some of the best acting a child his age (in Watiti’s story he’s 10, in reality he’s 13) has given since Sebastian Rice-Edwards played a young John Boorman in Hope and Glory and Salvatore Cascio played that film-mad snub-nosed brat in Cinema Paradiso. Between these and Jojo Rabbit is a space of more than 30 years, yet I think the comparison is justified: Davis does what Edwards and Cascio did, which is what most child actors cast in difficult settings – like war, or adolescence – find it impossible to do: let their real selves do the acting. The film is full of sequences where, for a few moments, he seems nearly in the role. If it’s difficult to think of a similar actor from a similarly themed movie play his role so well, it’s because there isn’t. Davis, with Johansson and Rockwell, is thus the saving grace of the story.

I mentioned before that a movie like this comes once in a while, and I implied, perhaps a little unfairly, that the director was cashing in on the proceeds and the salary he earned from Thor: Ragnarok.

It’s not the kind that Hollywood would prefer to indulge in. It’s certainly satire on a safe, mainstream level – there’s hardly a deep-down social critique of Nazism, even within the confines of satire or parody – but not the sort that, in these troubled times where social media has blurred the distinction between what is funny and what is outrageous or detestable, the American cinema will churn out again anytime soon. That alone is enough to redeem the film, for all the warts and flaws it enmeshes itself in.

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