When I left the theater after the Jojo rabbit screening, I couldn’t help but think about several stuff regarding the movie, but one struck me as odd; this quote from Joker director Todd Phillips about “woke” culture destroying comedies for him. I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I kind of agreed with him at the time; the comedies he is known for like The Hangover trilogy, Road Trip, Old school, and many others, are slowly fading to irrelevance now-a-days, due to people demanding comedies to be more thoughtful than that, people taking them too seriously (whether that’s right or not is a different discussion), and most of those movies now don’t create enough revenue to make those movies worthwhile investments for big studios. I thought about this, because I just saw a movie about a young Nazi kid who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary friend; you can’t get more “irreverent” (as Todd puts it) than that, and yet I – as most other people who saw it – laughed my ass off, while being emotionally invested to the characters and the drama developed during the movie. So much so, that when the movie ended and my buddy and I were discussing it, we both felt it reminded us of 1917 in regards to how that movie forces you to look at war with different perspectives, through different techniques.
In this respect, Jojo rabbit is unquestionably a success; the society shown in the movie is one that forces the viewer to think about its rules, how stuff works, and how the characters fit into that mold. Good people are given a single, destructive path and if they don’t take it, then they starve or are under immense pressure and suspicion. That’s not to say that there are no deranged individuals who find this new status quo highly advantageous for themselves, but it is to say this movie does not have ‘Nazi zombies’ – meaning that the Nazis are not cheap punching bags for jokes that trivialize and soften the evils they did by portraying them as naturally villainous or an easy target to blow shit up and create excitement. Jojo manages to show the systematic and cultural reasons for the rise of Nazi Germany, while still creating likeable, complex characters that want to prosper in that society and become their idolized role model even though we know that is a shitty goal to have; beyond that, it still shows good people acknowledging and resisting this status quo as best as they can and the perspective of Jewish people trapped in Nazi Germany in a thoughtful way.
Simultaneously, Jojo rabbit is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in the past few years; I wish I could be smart enough to talk about the comedy in this movie without spoiling the jokes or robbing you of the fun discovering the comedy during the movie, but I’m not. Instead, I want to talk about the one thing Taika Waititi nailed as the writer, director, and star of this movie: Every, single element that works in this movie comes from the characters and who they are. There’s never a moment a character does something that feels out of place for them and every joke, dramatic moment, and character growth is created from the writing of these characters; for example, Jojo is a kid full of imagination and a longing to belong to a group and a cause greater than himself, where he can be special. However, he is smart and was raised to be a good person, so every comical goof of him trying to be something he is not, every dramatic realization he has that the cause he set himself to join is not what he’s meant for, feels genuine and natural – and this goes for every character in the movie.
This feature of the movie is only partly down to writing, with directing being another big part, and as a director Taika has done some of his best work to date with Jojo rabbit; we all know how difficult it is to get good performances from child actors, but Roman Griffin Davies and Archie Yates absolutely steal the show. Beyond them, Scarlet Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Thomasin McKenzie, and Taika himself, give excellent performances alongside some other notable actors. Taika also understands the power and importance of visual storytelling and respecting the audiences’ intelligence; jokes are perfectly set up, executed, and shot, while relationships are explained/expanded with some visual, ‘poetic’ moments, while visuals are used to enhance the dramatic punch of certain moments. Even something as “simple” as the color grading and pallet shifting to match Jojo’s understanding of the world around him is done so subtly and beautifully, you can’t help but sympathize with the character and be absorbed in what’s happening in the movie. I can’t even remember the last time a comedy made me so anxious and tense about a scene, but Jojo’s mastery of characters and visuals are so good, you can’t help but be anxious and worrisome in those moments.
What’s the point of all these then? Clearly, controversial comedies about sensitive material are not dead, but, again, that’s not what I think Todd Phillips was referring to; the American Pie’s and the Hangover’s of the world are not thriving, and are not being produced as frequently or with as big of a budget and fanfare as they were used to. To me, Todd Phillips comments mirror the “single-player games are dead” sentiment from a few years back; it’s just people looking at trends and connecting the dots in a way that serves them or helps them explain/rationalize their choices in a way that makes them look good. The reality is though, that all genres and styles have a place in a healthy industry, but in this modern one, that place may not be in the spotlight or with the attention they used to enjoy; sex/irreverent/“it’s just a joke, don’t take it so seriously” comedies will always have their place, but not in the way they used to.
So, I guess the point is that I wanted a reason to talk about why I liked Jojo rabbit so much and to contextualize that in an interesting way, as well as to remind people that these hyperbolic comments are rarely true, but always have a hint of reality in them, so its best to think about them more thoroughly and come to your own conclusions. For me, it’s that I always enjoyed the Taika Waititi’s of the world over the American Pies, and that I trust creative people to make the Monty Pythons of this generation (something that modernizes and elevates genres for current and future generations to enjoy, regardless of demand or trends of the time) more than I fear a misguided sense of social justice (which I don’t actually think is misguided, but whatever!) to censor or deter them from doing so. As long as there are creatives like Taika who have clear visions, tastes, and willingness to experiment with their craft, comedies are clearly not dead.