Wartime-set black comedy during the times leading up to the Soviet arrival in Germany at the close of WWII
Dir: Taikia Waititi
Prod: Carthew Neal
Starring: Roman Griffin Davies, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen
Released by: Fox Searchlight
Release date: 2019
Running time: 108 minutes
At fist glance this movie could appear to be stark account of wartime propaganda and its effects seen through the eyes of JoJo (Roman Griffin Davies), a precocious child in the Hitler Youth. To be fair, that is what it will be at the end as well. It will have some garnish and individuality but we will say that is the format.
Young Jojo is a likeable dreamer of a child with the ubiquitous pudgy best friend and an imaginary pal, who takes the form of a goofball Adolf Hitler. Jojo pays lip service to the propaganda and the actions of the Third Reich, often more than this, he shows a keenness for it. However, his mettle and physical ability does not equip him well. After an ill-advised stunt from his imaginary chum, he attempts to show he is brave after all with disastrous consequence.
Changed down to a more clerical role, thanks to his mothers passionate fervour and clear influence, he is forced to spend more time at home where he encounters a rambunctious Jewish girl hiding in the bedroom of his dead sister.
As the world changes in quick time around him, he uses this girl to educate himself about "The Jew" and negotiate the tough choices and horrific incidents that approach. Sides are switched and disguises are realised. As with all WWII movies that are not Quentin Tarantino, we know what will happen- in a historical sense. Although it often does not mean we know what will actually happen to the story of the movie in question.
Sadly here, it pretty much does. There are a few twists and turns but nothing world-shattering. There is poignant heartbreak as he follows a butterfly (particularly tough) and the usual story of a dark figure showing a good side and a hateful relationship burgeoning into a positive one. However if you are looking for a movie that is as original as it thinks it is, this is not for you.
Not that it does not have its plus points. For a start, it has Sam Rockwell and I am yet to find that to be a minus in any production. However, he is underused and the closing act of his character is somewhat sentimental and obvious. Not worthy of an actor of his magnitude, thereby rendering it ultimately disappointing. Jojo himself does well in avoiding being too cute. He is often aggressively racist and a clear anti-semite. He capably demonstrates that it is not all propaganda-fed bile and he clearly enjoys some of the vitriol he gets to spout. The filmmaking is capable, the editing is swift and engaging and the cinematography as good as you will see anywhere.
The issue is that though. You have seen it "anywhere." That is what I would call the main downside to this movie; the derivative makeup of its overall appearance. Firstly, and having not read any other reviews I am willing to bet others have said this, it is far too similar to a Wes Anderson movie. Were it to have a passive voice-over narration providing exposition, the mirror would be complete. Particularly The Royle Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. the camerawork and filters, as well as the "off a ducks back" whimsical reactions to the absurdity that we see. It is too direct to be a tribute and too similar to be a pastiche.
The relationship between Jojo and Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) is sweet, if a little "Let the Right One in" and the construction of his realisation that Fascism is a malign ideology is finished off with class and some originality. Just not enough to balance to the coasting through much of the movie. Steven Merchant's introduction as a Gestapo officer was both funny (as the unfairly Gervais-shadowed Merchant always is) and strangely physically suitable. The problem is he was also wildly miscast. It puts one in the mind of the also fantastic Rhys Ifans in Hannibal Rising, evidence once more that even the best can suffer from a rogue casting couch.
This is not a bad movie. What it does is tell us that perhaps it is time to stop using the Second World War as a backdrop for paradoxical stories of human nature with a comic twist. The sad news is they are never likely to be better than this and I hope the studio's realise first, that this is not a good thing.