[Spoilers for Jojo Rabbit and Parasite]
On the poster for Jojo Rabbit, you can see in big, colourful letters: JOJO RABBIT AN ANTI-HATE SATIRE. Let’s break that down within the context of the film itself. When it comes to “anti-hate,” Jojo Rabbit does the bare minimum. It’s a movie about Nazism at the end of WWII that revolves around a kid coming to the realization that Jews aren’t evil after all. There are plenty of adult Nazis in the movie, but none of them are over-the-top evil, in fact, most of the adults end up being kind, accepting people. Even when Jojo is speaking to his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, Taika Waititi is playing the Fuhrer as if he’s merely a voice in Jojo’s head and not the actual Fuhrer himself until a heel turn at the very end. The film includes no modern day allegory and sticks entirely to the message of “I sure wish WWII was better for Jews,” a message I should think has been made clear in every history book written since the Holocaust. Calling a WWII movie “anti-hate” is like naming a movie Bad Boys For Life. Like, I already know Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are soulmates; it’s obvious in every facet of the film by default, and Jojo Rabbit is already anti-hate by default since it obviously has a negative opinion on Nazis like every Nazi movie that isn’t Triumph of the Will. This lack of a nuanced or even remotely intriguing take on WWII sets Jojo Rabbit up to immediately fail in terms of satire.
Satire is a frustratingly vague word. If it applies to any movie that makes fun of a person or group of people, any movie can be construed as a satire. But Jojo Rabbit goes as far as to call itself a SATIRE, and that forces the viewer to see it through a stricter satirical lens. The problem is, Jojo Rabbit is such a tonal disaster that the so-called satirical elements are weak to non-existent. The film begins as a complete ripoff of Moonrise Kingdom, which is fine because Moonrise Kingdom is great and Taika puts enough of his own spin on it to keep it funny. It even seems like there’s some actual, albeit in your face, satire with Sam Rockwell’s character, a Nazi Captain named Klenzendorf leading a training camp for young Nazis, including Jojo himself. Is taking a character archetype that is traditionally ultra-serious and making him silly and caricatural satire? Yes, technically, but it isn’t clever, nor does it single-handedly make Jojo Rabbit a satire. The film is at the very least a comedy, though, at this point. Once we’re introduced to another character, a young Jew named Elsa hiding in Jojo’s house, Jojo Rabbit (movie) goes through an identity crisis. The film attempts to balance its comedic elements with its more serious plot structure, and the seesaw cracks in the middle, both tones falling victim to each other. Taika realized he’d stopped making a comedy, and decided to remedy this by forcing his traditionally organic bizarreness into a movie it has no business being in. All the funny jokes I laughed at in the trailer fall completely flat in context. Is this an absurdist comedy-satire or a genuine WWII drama? Taika never decides, and the film suffers for it at every moment.
Contrast this with Parasite, a movie that doesn’t feel the need to call itself anything but its brilliantly apt title. Parasite blends its disparate tones so naturally and with such tact that I’d put it up there with In Bruges in terms of films that don’t adhere to a singular genre. Its satire is apparent to any viewer with some knowledge of wealth inequality, but the film can also be appreciated from a literal, less socially charged perspective. I wouldn’t call Parasite the pinnacle of subtlety, but its transparency makes it accessible to a more mainstream audience, and I’m happy if more people are beginning to take a liking to the genius of Bong Joon-Ho. What elevates Parasite’s hilarious and often upsetting, difficult satire is the fact that it isn’t confined to simply mocking the rich who perpetuate the cycle of poverty. The Kim family’s absurd tactics to make and save as much money as possible – as well as their immediate disdain towards the lower class as soon as they begin to move up in status – is just as satirical and socially important as the more obvious aspects of the film.
So what can Jojo Rabbit learn from Parasite? We’ve already been through the basic points: Be more subtle, be more contemporary in message, don’t manipulate your audience, etc. Satire functions as a complement to a film’s themes, and while Parasite’s themes are incredibly clear and unremitting, Jojo Rabbit’s are muddied and confused. Parasite injects the essence of its satirical edge into each and every scene, be it hilarious, dramatic, or brutally violent. Jojo Rabbit confines its satire not just to certain scenes but to certain characters, while the others are taken straight out of a different movie, giving it the uncomfortable and disjointed Frankenstein effect. Consistency in theme is an invisible but vital aspect of any film, and when it’s not there you may not notice it, “but your brain did,” as Mike Stoklasa of Red Letter Media loves to say. Jojo Rabbit’s themes are wildly dissimilar from one another: First is the comical evil and unrelenting hate enacted by the Nazis, which feels more like a WWII parody. The second theme is completely contradictory to the first, claiming that anyone can become a good person, even a Nazi. Nowhere is this more apparent than Captain Klenzendorf, who goes from being a representation of Nazi ridiculousness to a kindhearted, selfless man who sacrifices himself for Jojo’s safety. With more character development and concrete theming, this is the setup for a great, dynamic character, but the incredibly jarring shift is only emblematic of the film’s script-wide messiness.
Let’s pit two characters against each other: Kim Ki-Taek, or Mr. Kim from Parasite, and Klenzendorf from Jojo Rabbit. Ki-Taek follows an arc that looks somewhat opposite to Klenzendorf in terms of escalation vs deescalation: He begins as the most mild-mannered member of the Kim family, a man who worked for a legit business for years who is unfortunately unemployed like the rest of his family. We see him change from a driver content to finally have a comfortable job again to a man who decides, in the heat of the moment, to murder his employer. How did we get here? That’s a question with a rather lengthy answer for Kim Ki-Taek, and a simple one for Klenzendorf’s abrupt change of heart: I have no clue. Over the course of Parasite, little things begin to irk Kim Ki-Taek about the family he works for. Their obscene wealth is uncomfortable, and the obliviously classist comments about “poor people smell” is a gross insult to such a motivated man. The folks living in the house’s secret bunker expose him to what even worse poverty looks like, and rather than turning against the rich upon finding out, the family turns on those who should be their allies, the fellow strugglers. Cut to the garden party, and Kim Ki-Taek has just witnessed his daughter get murdered by his basement-dwelling enemy. He stares blankly at his employer, a bloodsoaked symbol of exactly who he should have hated all along. In this moment, he realizes the mistakes he’d made over the course of his family’s extended deception, and he plunges a knife into the heart of a man named Abusive Capitalism. This off-the-wall final act genre shift to horror/thriller is set up brilliantly through Kim Ki-Taek and his family. Their heightened satirical attributes persist throughout the entire film and culminate in an eruption of thematic massacre, exposing guts, blood, and systemic failure. Klenzendorf’s sudden counter-character actions expose nothing but a directionless, disingenuous script, and ersatz satire without any valid narrative payoff.
As I said in my brief reviews a couple days ago, there would be a bad movie within Parasite if it weren’t directed perfectly, and there’s a good movie hidden in Jojo Rabbit if only Taika had taken the time to understand what he wanted from his own film. I’m disappointed in Taika, because while I think he’s a good writer, he’s often given too much freedom to make whatever he wants. It worked wonderfully for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, but it made What We Do in the Shadows an experience that, while often enjoyable, could have been refined and shaped into a more consistent and better paced film. Thor: Ragnarok is the one time Taika was forced to be at least somewhat regulated, since the Marvel franchise has a massive corporate body watching his every move, and his writing excels in this context. He needs a “NO” man. Taika is incredibly funny, but even the best comedy writers write some duds every once in a while, and someone needs to point out these flaws. Jojo is one big dud, and it being released so close to Parasite, a satire that succeeds in every conceivable way, exposes the glaring, damning issues that haunt Jojo Rabbit, and will continue to haunt Taika Waititi if he fails to learn from his mistakes.