Film review of Jojo Rabbit

December 26, 2019

(This review of “Jojo Rabbit” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 19 December 2019.)

Directed and written by Taika Waititi, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens; starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson


What do you get when you cross iconic Jewish film-maker Mel Brooks (The Producers) with the late comic actor and film-maker Charlie Chaplin? If the year is 2019 and the film is Jojo Rabbit, it’s Jewish-Maori film director Taika David Waititi, who is also known as Taika Cohen. A 2017 “New Zealander of the Year” and self-styled “Polynesian Jew”, Waititi’s film credits include the New Zealand classic Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Marvel comics blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok.

But Jojo Rabbit is something different. Waititi took a great artistic risk in casting himself as Hitler (yes, you read that correctly) in this black satiric comedy set in Nazi Germany’s final years.

Waititi’s character is the imaginary friend of 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (played by a wide-eyed Roman Griffin Davis), who lives with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), as the finale of the war slowly closes around them.

Jojo has been inculcated into becoming a fierce young Nazi, although his unwillingness to kill a rabbit marks him out as unsuitable for Nazi brutality. His world is thrown into disarray when he discovers that his mother (father is away at war, unheard of for some time) has hidden Elsa, a young Jewish woman (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in the family’s attic. Thus Jojo is forced to confront his prejudices and shield both Elsa and his mother.

Based on the novel Caging Skies by American-New Zealand writer Christine Leunens, whose Belgian grandfather spent time in a German labour camp, we have to cast back to Chaplin’s 1941 film The Great Dictator – in which he played both a Jewish barber in the ghetto and “Adenoid Hynkel” – to find an equivalent.

The supporting role casting of JoJo Rabbit is inspired: Sam Rockwell plays a Nazi captain, and Rebel Wilson plays a Nazi camp counsellor. Shooting in Prague – not exactly typical German architecture – assists in giving the film an offbeat, skewed feel. Although unlikely to reach the classic status of Chaplin, Taika Waititi offers one of the most creative films of the year.

Read The Times of Israel‘s list of 13 Jewish actors who have previously played Nazis on screen, starting with Moe Howard in 1940, and including Jack Benny, Conrad Veidt (Casablanca), Otto Preminger, Peter Sellers, Mel Brooks, Joel Grey and Harvey Keitel.

Film review of Marriage Story

December 26, 2019

(This film review of “Marriage Story” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 21 November 2019)

Directed and written by Noam Baumbach; starring Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Julie Hagerty

Noah Baumbach writes and directs character-driven dramatic films, the type that helped to change American movie-making in the late 1960s and 1970s. Baumbach carries the tradition of those break-through directors (think Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet), and has been called the “spiritual heir” to Woody Allen, “joking in earnest about the big stuff.”

Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) famously said that Baumbach reminded him “of why I got into movies in the first place. It was for revenge.” Some of Baumbach’s best work has been autobiographical, such as “The Squid and the Whale”. Now add Baumbach’s latest, “Marriage Story”, which has just opened in Australian cinemas, and will screen via Netflix from mid-December.

Netflix put “Marriage Story” in cinemas in November to make it eligible for the Oscars (it’s now on Netflix). And Oscar-worthy it is, being tipped for best film, script, director, actor and actress nominations. It’s that good.

It’s also not easy to watch. For “Marriage Story” is not boy-meets-girl cute and live happily-ever-after; rather the opposite. The story begins in New York City where experimental theatre director Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is about to split up from his actress wife Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), who is heading to Los Angeles – where she grew up and her extended family lives – to star in a pilot TV show. The problem is, they have an eight year old adorable son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), over whom they will fight for most of the film – yes, it’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” (Streep vs. Hoffman) 40 years on. With Henry moving to LA with Nicole (“lots of space”, characters keep saying), Charlie must travel there to be with him, providing an undercurrent of New York/Los Angeles and theatre/television tension.

“Marriage Story” starts pleasantly and poetically enough, with voice-over monologues by Charlie and Nicole, each listing the things they love about each other. It’s one of the most affecting openings to a relationship film I have seen in a long time. It’s also a misdirection to the viewer, as the next scene – the two of them with a marriage counsellor mediator – makes clear. Nicole is driving their separation, and it’s likely that many men and women will react differently both to this scene and to the film.

In the lead roles, Driver and Johansson deliver extraordinary performances, enhanced by some of the sharpest – and intentionally hilarious – minor characters, all of whom “own” the screen when present. Three divorce lawyers – Laura Dern as Nicole’s lawyer, and Ray Liotta and Alan Alda as Charlie’s lawyers – appear in tightly scripted and neatly paced scenes you can easily imagine pored over by film students in years to come. Julie Hagerty plays Johansson’s mother, exhibiting the comedy skills she developed in her “Airplane!” (1980) debut role. Screen aficionados will also note the presence of Wallace Shawn, one of the world’s top Jewish character actors (“The Princess Bride”, “Clueless”), as one of Charlie’s New York theatre troupe.

Baumbach remains one of film’s best writers of contemporary “drama with a comedy edge”, with lines such as this one, delivered by Liotta’s character: “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best. Divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.” Pretty much captures it.

The film does not emphasise its Jewish roots, but they are significant: “Marriage Story” is based on the dissolution of the marriage of Baumbach (who is Jewish) to Jennifer Jason Leigh (also Jewish), played by Johansson (also Jewish). The Adam Driver character’s family background has more to do with Driver’s own family story (mid-west dysfunctional) than Baumbach’s (New York Jewish intellectual), but it’s easy to see how Driver’s character stands in for Baumbach’s own. The result is a complex, brave, affecting, profound, unsettling and often very funny drama, my pick for one of the best of the year.