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JoJo Rabbit and Motherless Brooklyn

JoJo Rabbit (New Zealand/Czech Republic
Billed as an “anti-hate satire”, this is the kind of audacious moviemaking that dares anyone to be indifferent.  It has certainly succeeded in provoking highly polarized reactions among critics (ratings on range from 91% to zero).  Quirky Kiwi director Taika Waititi is of mixed Maori and Jewish heritage and has spent time in Germany. He was undoubtedly aware of the risks in doing a parody of Nazi rule but doubles down by himself playing a mock version of Adolph Hitler who appears as the imaginary friend of a swastika-loving 10-year old boy “JoJo” (Roman Griffin Davis).  JoJo’s lack of killer instinct gets him tagged as a scared “rabbit” in a Hitler youth camp run by a cartoon-like Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell).   While “Adolph” is there to encourage the boy’s Nazi zeal, JoJo discovers a very different reality at home. Indeed his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johannsen) is hiding a teenage Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) who destroys JoJo’s hateful stereotypes.  JoJo doesn’t want to put his devoted mother in danger, and the human connection he develops with Elsa becomes the antidote to the poisonous propaganda that has been drilled into him.
            Loosely based on the Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies, this is material replete with caricatures and exaggerated sendups that can easily backfire.  Waititi’s aim is to hold Nazism up to ridicule and to use JoJo’s childish susceptibility to it to warn against tolerating today’s insidious far-right forms of hate.  Not everyone will appreciate this deliberately offensive humour for its subversive intent.  Toronto festival audiences gave the movie an enthusiastic embrace and the “people’s choice” award.  I had a similarly positive reaction but I also understand why it will leave some viewers with a bad taste.  See it and be the judge.  A-
This is very much a passion project for Edward Norton, not only as writer-director-producer but also as lead actor in the title role of Lionel Essrog,  a loner-type private eye (“gumshoe”) afflicted with Tourette syndrome that results in compulsive spastic twitches and spoken outbursts, especially when stressed (chewing gum and smoking marijuana helps to control the urges). That gets Lionel the label of “freak show”.  But he has remarkable powers of memory that have made him a valuable asset to a detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).  Because Lionel grew up in a Catholic orphanage he’s the “motherless Brooklyn” whom Frank has taken under his wing.  Norton’s screenplay is adapted from the eponymous novel by Jonathan Lethem, except that Norton has moved the action back from the 1990s to the New York City of the 1950s.
            The other central character and chief antagonist is the ruthless city planner and power-broker Moses Randolph, a role based on the real-life legendary “master builder” Robert Moses whose grand visions sometimes ran roughshod over low-income communities (notably infrastructure projects resulting in the clearance of “Negro slums”). Randolph is played with tycoon menace by Alec Baldwin.  (It’s probably no accident that he’s currently known for his wicked impersonations of Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live”.)  Randolph has some dark secrets he wants to keep hidden.  He also has a strained relationship with a brother Paul (Willem Dafoe) that erupts periodically.  When Frank is shot and killed by thugs while following a case, Lionel sets out to put the pieces together.  A reference to “Formosa” leads him to an African-American jazz club in Harlem where he encounters Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an activist for housing rights.  Another clue is discovered inside Frank’s hat.  Lionel is on a trail that leads to Randolph, with dangerous consequences from which he must protect Laura Rose.
            The movie’s sprawling narrative struggles somewhat to hold all of these elements together.  Nonetheless Norton is effective as the eccentric character of Lionel who goes where the evidence leads. And as much as the cinematography and soundtrack evoke a bygone era, the moral of the story is a timely reminder of how power corrupts. B+    


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