It isn’t rare to see a love-it-or-hate-it movie; every awards season brings one or two of them. Last year we had “Green Book,” this year we have “Joker.” (I’m tempted to say, in the case of both those films, that millions of moviegoers love them and 197 media people hate them, but that’s another story.) “Jojo Rabbit,” the movie that invites us to deplore the evil actions of the Nazis but adore the cuddly comedy of seeing them turned into over-the-top fops and fools, looks, at a glance, to have inspired a textbook case of love-it-or-hate-it divisiveness. That was true from the moment the movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. It came in with an insane level of you-gotta-see-it, you-won’t-believe-it buzz; it left with a mixed bag of plaudits and pans, its path to awards victory now strewn with questions. That felt like a far less uniformly ecstatic response than the executives at Fox Searchlight were expecting, or wanting.
Yet as a movie goes out into the world, it generates its own forms of conversation — and publicity. Controversy, orchestrated in the right way, can help a film achieve notoriety; it can be just the thing to get tongues wagging. And in the case of “Jojo Rabbit,” the controversy — or, at least, the orchestrated illusion of it — is built into the film’s faux outrageous aesthetic, its whole thumb-in-the-eye-of-the-monster, satire-is-resistance! brand. It’s a movie that actually counts on a divided reaction, because the key question “Jojo Rabbit” is asking its audience isn’t, “Are you willing to laugh at hate?”
The key question is, “Are you cool enough to get it?”
It, in this case, is the film’s hipper-than-thou attitude of sardonic detachment from the horrors it’s about. When I reviewed “Jojo Rabbit” back in Toronto, readers tweaked me for relying too much on the term “hipster,” and to be honest it’s a word I’ve tweaked myself for over-using. I’ve tried, and failed, to ban it from my vocabulary. The reason I keep failing is that it’s so hard to come up with another word that means what it does.
We have an image of the hipster. He’s generally a dude (though he doesn’t have to be), and he wears this sort of glasses and T-shirt and facial hair, and lives in this or that buzzword neighborhood (it used to be Williamsburg; I’m not hip enough to know where it is now), and drinks this brand of beer, and is religious about this kind of indie rock and that sort of hip-hop, and is caustic about everything else except, you know, superhero movies (since growing up reading comic books is a hipster trope), but he somehow has a meta-cynical way of guilty-pleasuring that into the diagram of his cachet.
But forget that annoying dude. “Hipster” is really a state of mind, a way of viewing everything through the secret pride of ironic superiority, so that you’re on the cutting edge of life and above it at the same time. That’s why Wes Anderson is the cinema’s hipster Buddha, and why “Jojo Rabbit,” a Nazi-boy-meets-Jewish-girl coming-of-age film that feels like it could be called “Moonreich Kingdom,” is a quintessential hipster movie.
As I said when I first wrote about it, the film builds on a fabled history of Nazi mockery in films and television, going back to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (which came out 80 years ago), the “Springtime for Hitler” sequence of Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” (50 years ago), the ’60s sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” and many other one-shot examples.
What makes “Jojo Rabbit” different is the way that the movie, metaphorically, is taking on the whole hate paroxysm of the Trump/Brexit/nationalist/rise-of-white-supremacy era. It’s tapping into the rage all around us — and it’s asking, implicitly, if the audience is willing to go on a satirical ride that treats the collective convulsion of that hate as a gleeful lark. The fact that the film’s director, Taika Waititi, chose to portray Adolf Hitler himself, and to play him as the hero’s imaginary BFF (who tries to spur him toward the dark side while dropping teen-girl-ese giddy-isms like “That was intense!”), lends the film a weird note of personalized devotion. The hidden strategy of “Jojo Rabbit” is to take Hitler and turn him into the audience’s BFF, an irresistible mascot of intolerance.
By doing so, the film doesn’t merely ask us to laugh (once I got the joke, I felt like the giggles petered out after about 15 minutes). It asks us to divide ourselves into the hip and the square. The hip are those who are savvy and brazen enough to look right into the face of hate and laugh in a way that’s so roguish and knowing it makes them part of the Insider Defiance Club. The square are those of us who are not clued-in enough to join that club. But here’s the insidious part: The way we demonstrate our squareness is by complaining that the movie is too flippant, too frivolous, too irresponsible, too whatever it is. The way “Jojo Rabbit” is conceived, to reject the movie in any way is to not get it.
That’s why a furrowed-brow negative assessment like the New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s “When We Laugh at Nazis, Maybe the Joke’s on Us” plays directly into the film’s hands. By saying that the troubles of today (the neo-Nazi movements in Europe, etc.) are too serious to justify the existence of a movie like “Jojo Rabbit,” Scott winds up saying, in essence, that he’s too serious for a movie like “Jojo Rabbit.” That puts him in the square club. I’m in the square club, too, but not because I agree that the times are too rough for an “anti-hate satire.” When it comes to savaging hate, I say use every weapon possible, including laughter. The problem, in this case, is that the only real answer “Jojo Rabbit” offers to hateful extremism is the extreme love the movie has for itself.