Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Done for Now?

Film: Jojo Rabbit
Format: DVD from NetFlix on basement television.

I’ve been saying for some time that I’m about done with my Oscar lists, and I think I’m about as done as I can be. Of the nine movies I haven’t seen, most are missing, fragmentary, or exist only in some cinematic vault on the other side of the country. Oh, I might watch the scraps that remain of those I can, but I think I’m done with full movies on these lists until the next Oscars…whenever that might be. So here I am, essentially done, and just in time for the next update to the 1001 Movies list.

So, I saved Jojo Rabbit for “last” for no reason other than that I didn’t want a complete slog to end this part of this journey. Jojo Rabbit is at least partially a comedy. It’s a pitch black comedy, surely, but a comedy nonetheless. Our hapless hero is Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) a 10-year-old German kid in the last days of World War II. Jojo is a completely indoctrinated member of the Hitler Youth and a fervent Nazi, but doesn’t really have a clear understanding of the party’s doctrines. Jojo’s imaginary friend is a goofy and childlike Hitler stand-in (played by director Taika Waititi) who gives unclear advice to Jojo.

On a weekend retreat for Hitler Youth, Jojo earns his nickname of Jojo Rabbit by refusing to kill a bunny. Ridiculed for weakness, Jojo decides to impress the camp leaders, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), his assistant Finkel (Alfie Allen), and camp matron Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) by learning to throw a grenade. True to form, it bounces back to his feet and Jojo is scarred in the face and earns a limp.

At home, Jojo discovers that his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is a pacifist, not a supporter of the Nazi party, and, worst of all in Jojo’s mind, harboring a fugitive Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). Not trusting her at first, Jojo eventually warms to Elsa, and demands that she tell him all of her “Jew secrets,” which she naturally makes up out of whole cloth (Jews sleep hanging upside down from the ceiling like bats and grow horns, but not until they are 21), and which he naturally believes completely.

The bulk of Jojo Rabbit is this play between what Jojo thinks is true and his child’s dedication to the indoctrination he has received and what he experiences in the rest of the world. This is an absurdist comedy more than it is anything else, but it naturally goes to some very dark places as well. There’s a lot of Kafka here, and a lot of Joseph Heller. And more than any other movie, this reminds me a great deal of Life is Beautiful.

Jojo Rabbit won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and scored a few other nominations as well, including one for Best Picture. It allowed Scarlett Johansson to score an odd accomplishment by earning a Best Supporting Actress nomination for this and a Best Actress nom for Marriage Story in the same year. I’d have loved to have seen some recognition for Waititi here. He’s probably not in the film enough to qualify for a supporting role (although, truthfully, he was), and his directing could have been acknowledged as well. This is a very hard balance to get right. The proper response to Nazi ideology as Mel Brooks discovered with The Producers is to point and laugh at it as much as possible. Jojo Rabbit walks that line about as well as it can be walked.

I really want to call out Roman Griffin Davis here, as well as Archie Yates, who plays Jojo’s pudgy friend Yorki. These kids are dynamite. It’s unfair for Oscar to put kids in competition against adults in acting categories, but Yates and especially Davis are absolutely posterchildren for the idea that Oscar should have an award for Best Child Performance. The entire movie hangs on how well Davis can carry off this role, and he does it flawlessly. Yates, in his scenes, is a sort of deadpan comic relief that works because he plays it so straight. For that matter, Thomasin McKenzie is equally good in a role that is also one that could easily become unforgiving.

This is a hard film not to like, but also one that I think it would be hard to watch frequently. There’s a lot of comedy here, but there’s not a lot of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s dark stuff, and funny because it’s dark. While it does offer a path through the darkness, it’s not always an easy trip getting there.

Do I have complaints? I’d have loved more of Sam Rockwell’s character. Alfie Allen could have been given a lot more to do. And, honestly, I find that Rebel Wilson grates on me, and that was no different here. Still, those are small issues. What I genuinely like here is that Jojo Rabbit takes a lot of risks and makes them work. It never really plays it safe, and I have a great deal of respect for just how many plates Waititi keeps spinning.

Why to watch Jojo Rabbit: This is how you do dark comedy.
Why not to watch: It’s a lot darker than you think it’s going to be.


  1. I do love this film a lot as I think it's the right film for the times we're in as I really enjoyed the performances of Griffin Davis and Yates as well as Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, and of course, Scar-Jo 3:16. It is a pure film from Waititi as it bear a lot of the similar traits with all of his feature films in dealing with tragedy and comedy. Even a film like Thor: Ragnarok which is a superhero film but it has some of Waititi's themes as it relates to the guilt and shame of Odin and the tragic outcome that Thor had to face. I'm so looking forward to Next Goal Wins as it's about the American Samoan football (soccer for Americans) team and their attempt to qualify for the 2014 World Cup with Michael Fassbender as their coach.

    1. I've liked everything Waititi has directed that I've seen, and that's not something I can say about a lot of directors. And I think you're right about his themes--same things pop up in Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

  2. Haven't seen this yet, so I can't comment on it too much, but just wanted to make a couple observations.

    There actually used to be an Oscar for youth performances called the Academy Juvenile Award, awarded sometimes to a single child performance in a year (no nominees); I only know that because I'm in the midst right now of the years when they awarded it pretty frequently - the kid from The Yearling won it for 1946, which kinda made me chuckle a little. Wikipedia tells me the last time it was given out was in 1960, as two years afterward Patty Duke legitimately won for Best Supporting Actress for The Miracle Worker and the Academy saw fit to stop giving out a separate award for child actors now that the glass ceiling had been broken for them to win competitive ones. I can definitely see where people like you are coming from though, where the categories are often so finite and crowded that great child performances are left wanting for the sake of the Academy not thinking they have a real shot at winning, and where they should bring back this award now that the amount of films qualifying for Oscar consideration has risen exponentially since 1960. Hell, the Cannes Film Festival still gives out an annual award for the best canine performance; a Youth Performance Oscar shouldn't be that big of an ask.

    I've also gone through your Oscar lists as well (as you know), and the only film that might be possibly within reach, and not partially or completely lost or otherwise unobtainable as you've indicated, is 1931's The Guardsman. I've been keeping a partial eye out for anything about a copy of this or a showing of it on TCM or the like, and have come up empty each time, but it has shown on TCM in the past, so it's not entirely off the table. Perhaps it might be something to ask around to anyone reading or posting in this comments section if they have any leads toward this one?

    1. The Guardsman is one of the two I hold out hope for. The other is The Rogue Song, which exists at least in part online, and those pieces may be all that I'll get a chance to see. Not having cable at the moment, though, makes seeing The Guardsman a much iffier proposition.

      I still check online every now and then to see if anything shows up.

      Your points about child Oscars is well-taken. It never seems fair when a kid is nominated--Quvenzhane Wallis had no chance a few years ago, but absolutely deserved recognition for giving such a grand performance at such a young age. You could say the same about a kid like Jacob Tremblay in Room.

      Oscar could use a Best Youth Performance Oscar along with Best Stuntwork and Best Vocal Performance. And they should combine the Sound Mixing and Sound Editing Oscars into one.

    2. I'd be with you on all three additional Oscars. Oddly enough, the two Sound categories will indeed be combined starting with this year's/next year's ceremony; that plus them bumping it back until April along with all the other COVID-related alterations is all we've heard about the next Oscars, I think.

      As for The Rogue Song, I had dismissed it because it was only in fragmented form, as you said, and I wasn't sure if there were enough fragments existent to where one could legitimately say they'd "seen" the film. Wikipedia's page on it does say though that somewhat-complete copies, filled out with stills and the still-available soundtrack, have been cobbled together; one of which is on YouTube. A quick search for that led me to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cekirq79Fzk

      That might be the best option in terms of seeing what there is of the film to be seen.

    3. Looks like I'm not quite done, then. Thanks for the heads-up. That would finish 1930 Best Actor for me, even if there's really only about 30 minutes of actual footage here. Better than nothing, and one small step closer to that ultimately unachievable goal (since The Patriot is gone forever).

  3. Congratulations, Steve! Incredible achievement.

  4. You have managed quite a feat!

    I think The Guardsman is the only one that you might have a realistic shot at seeing in full without going to an archive, I know The Noose and The Barker are at MoMa and The White Parade is in LA. You would think with only one print in existence for each and the fact that they have an Academy connection they would be a priority for restoration and duplication. Perhaps they are too fragile but I find that doubtful and all the more reason to get on the ball. The Rogue Song is fragments but I think enough to make some kind of sense out of it unlike Jannings The Way of All Flesh.

    But I've seen The Guardsman on TCM, as far as I know during its only showing so far. It was a little stiff but not terrible, since it is the fabled Lunt & Fontanne's only film it was worth seeing.

    I don't see the sense of the discontinuation of the Juvenile Oscar either. It's not like they handed it out every year, just when a truly extraordinary performer or performance came along. Basically an award of merit. Of course knowing the disregard the Academy has for special awards (I'm heartsick the Thalberg and Lifetime Achievement awards are given at a separate ceremony, those presentations were often the most touching and memorable of the night) they would give it out off camera so that some flash in the pan who no one will remember in ten years can come out and read off a cue card.

    Haven't see Jojo Rabbit yet.

    1. According to my notes, The Barker is in LA, but my research was a bit slapdash when I did it, and I bow to your superior knowledge in this case. In fact, I have it at UCLA with The White Parade. Drag is in an archive somewhere, but I don't have it written down where, and what exists of Sorrell and Son is evidently at AMPAS and missing the final reel. The Patriot is famously lost, of course, as is most of The Way of All Flesh, although there are apparently some stills at the university near my home along with the six or seven minutes on YouTube. That leaves The Guardian, for which I hold out some hope, and the fragments of The Rogue Song as potentials.

      I'm curious to hear your take on Jojo Rabbit. I'm especially curious to hear your take on the main performance, which I think makes a compelling case for that juvenile Oscar.

  5. I LOVED Jojo Rabbit. As you say, it's filled with great performances and the screenplay is smart and funny. I agree that it could use more of Sam Rockwell, but when isn't that true? For a film set in Nazi Germany, it's surprisingly fun, until suddenly it's not. This movie delivered more of a gut punch than any film in my memory. Really great.

    1. It does turn dark, but it would almost have to, wouldn't it?

      I've been a Sam Rockwell fan for some time. When he's at his best, there aren't a lot of people who are better.