“JoJo Rabbit” stars Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis as mother and son in 1945 Germany. (Twentieth Century Fox)

“JoJo Rabbit” stars Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis as mother and son in 1945 Germany. (Twentieth Century Fox)

Bad-taste humor gives way to soft sincerity in ‘JoJo Rabbit’

Believe it or not, the film needs more of its very weird idea: Hitler as an imaginary friend to a 10-year-old boy.

It isn’t every day you find yourself saying this about a movie, but I’ll go there: Not enough Hitler.

We’re talking about “JoJo Rabbit,” the new comedy by writer-director Taika Waititi. In this fantasia set in Germany in 1945, Waititi plays Der Fuhrer as an imaginary friend to a 10-year-old boy.

This idea is so weird and campy that it comes as a surprise, and a disappointment, that Waititi only appears in a fraction of the film’s running time. The rest is taken up with the adventures — comic, dramatic, sentimental — of the very confused little boy.

He is JoJo, played by Roman Griffin Davis. JoJo is being schooled as a soldier-in-training for the Nazi cause, although his mother (Scarlett Johansson in a winning performance) is more skeptical.

In his imaginary conversations, JoJo seeks advice from a supportive Hitler. If you thought “The Producers” was offensive for treating Nazi Germany as a punchline, don’t even bother with Waititi’s interpretation, where the dictator speaks in a lingo suited to teenagers LOLing online.

These scenes are funny, and the film is full of outrageous jokes that destroy the line between propriety and bad taste. I like those kinds of jokes, so this is very much all right with me.

Things change when JoJo finds that his mother has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls of their house. JoJo’s superiors have told him how horrible Jewish people are, so Elsa’s warm presence is puzzling.

“JoJo Rabbit” won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, one of those prizes that allegedly predict Oscar success. I can see why it won: Its satire gives way to a softer kind of emotional comedy, and the ending is quite touching.

I’m not completely clear about what Waititi means to be saying, though, outside of some antiwar sincerity. And we really miss the sharp comedy of the film’s first half-hour as things move along.

Waititi’s career as a director has split between the hilarious rat-a-tat humor of “Thor: Ragnarok” and “What We Do in the Shadows” on the one hand and the sweeter childhood tales of “Boy” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” on the other. The new movie tilts toward sweetness, despite the setting.

One thing Waititi gets absolutely spot-on: the actors. In his first film, Roman Griffin Davis is exactly right as the wide-eyed JoJo, and very much in tune with Waititi’s style of whimsy. Opposite him, McKenzie (remarkable as the adolescent heroine of “Leave No Trace”) is equally impressive — grave, wounded, subtly humorous.

The adult actors pale by comparison, but there’s still solid joke production from Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant as Nazi officials.

And Waititi himself — well, I hope there’s an hour of Hitler outtakes somewhere. This routine is shamelessly funny, even if the rest of the film doesn’t always know where to stop.

“JoJo Rabbit” (2 stars)

In 1945 Germany, a 10-year-old boy (terrific newcomer Roman Griffin Davis) idolizes Hitler, to the point of having the dictator as his imaginary friend (played by a campy Taika Waititi, who also directed). Some funny things in this satire, although its bad-taste humor eventually gives way to a softer kind of antiwar sincerity; it’s hard to know what the movie is actually trying to say. With Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie.

Rating: PG-13, for violence, subject matter

Opening Friday: Pacific Place, Thornton Place

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