No laughing matter: Critics and audiences debate whether Joker and Jojo Rabbit go too far

The films Joker and JoJo Rabbit have divided critics and audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, sparking interesting debates about whether they send irresponsible messages. Eli Glasner takes a closer look.

Warning: This story contains minor spoilers

Taika Waititi, left, as Adolf Hitler in the film JoJo Rabbit, and Joaquin Phoenix, right, as Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes Joker. (Credit Warner Bros. / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

UPDATE: Jojo Rabbit won TIFF's top prize, the People's Choice Award, on Sunday afternoon.

As the city burns, a clown puts his fingers in his bloody mouth and pulls his cheeks into a leering red grin. His crowd of followers bellows in approval.

During the Second World War, a young boy learning to be a good Nazi charges into the forest, with Adolf Hitler skipping merrily at his side. 

Those are two distinctive images from two movies dividing audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival. 

You could say TIFF has been a festival of extremes. This is where the race to the Oscars begins, and at this point, it could be Mister Rogers and the Joker in a dead heat.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood features Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers, the convivial children's television host. The role fits Hanks as snugly as Rogers's sweater. Hanks nails Rogers's singsong voice as well as the intense interest he showed in everyone he met. 

But while A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a feel-good tearjerker, Joker is quite the opposite — a grimy descent that serves as the origin story for one of the most iconic DC Comics characters.

There have been many Jokers, but with Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes the murderous clown, we see the person under the face paint, his bitterness building into a brutal crescendo of violence. 

While many of the cast on the red carpet for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood said they felt the world could use more Mister Rogers right now, Joker is just as much a reflection of our time — albeit, a cracked and twisted view some critics have called irresponsible.

Writing in Time magazine, Stephanie Zacharek described Joker as a prime example of the "emptiness of our culture" and called Arthur the "patron saint of incels."

While Hollywood Reporter awards columnist Scott Feinberg considers Phoenix an Oscar contender, he warned the film could incite "real-world problems."

In the Globe and Mail, Sarah Hagi said Phoenix's Joker represents an ideology, "becoming more vigilante than villain."

Speaking to CBC News at the TIFF premiere of the film, Joker director Todd Phillips defended his work.

Filmmaker Todd Phillips talks to CBC News in Toronto about his film Joker on Monday. (CBC)

"I think a lot of the criticism comes from people who haven't seen the movie yet. We've only showed the movie in Venice and nobody there had that reaction ... I would say, see the movie and judge for yourself."

Last weekend, the competition jury in Venice awarded Joker the festival's highest honour, the Golden Lion, the first time the prize has gone to a film inspired by a comic book. 

Psychos, drivers and clowns

There's nothing novel about a film that explores the minds of deeply disturbed characters.

Think of American Psycho, or Taxi Driver, or A Clockwork Orange — there have always been films that attempt to take us inside the headspace of disturbed individuals.

As Patrick Bateman, Christian Bale exemplified the shallow single-mindedness of the 1980s in American Psycho.

As Travis Bickle, Robert De Niro embodied a desperate sense of loneliness in Taxi Driver. 

In Joker, Arthur Fleck is portrayed as a man with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. (Warner Bros.)

For his role in Joker, Phoenix dropped more than 50 pounds, transforming into a sinewy scarecrow, topped with a smiling face, absent any joy. 

Like many of the films at TIFF such as The Laundromat, Hustlers and Parasite, the backdrop of the Joker is a place of economic disparity. This Gotham is plagued by garbage strikes and super rats. Thugs roam the streets while Thomas Wayne promises to save the upper crust from the chaos. Almost by accident, the Joker becomes a symbol to the angry masses who want to pull Gotham's gleaming towers down. 

With the dingy colour scheme and sickly lighting, director Todd Phillips pays homage to, or perhaps outright borrows from, Taxi Driver. But whereas Travis Bickle articulated his own warped view of the world, Arthur Fleck could be seen as a product of his environment. 

Arthur is like a weed growing in an abandoned garden. He's the result of a life of neglect, abuse and mental illness. Someone who is ignored and mocked. It's only when Arthur guns down a trio of rich business bros who are bullying him that the citizens of Gotham finally take notice.

For director Phillips, there is a sense of inevitability to the character.

"Our vision was a guy who ultimately has to become the Joker, so there's gonna be a little bit of anger and rebellion in him."

Judging Jojo Rabbit's satirical take on Nazi Germany 

While the potency of Joker's punchline is no laughing matter, it's the very fact that Jojo Rabbit presents a comedic take on Adolf Hitler that has some critics concerned. 

The film, directed by Taika Waititi, follows the life of a young German boy named Jojo during the final days of the Second World War. Jojo dreams of being a good Nazi and is helped by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi. 

Waititi plays the dictator in the irreverent style the actor/director is known for. The film opens with Hitler acting as Jojo's life coach, teaching him how to do a proper "Heil Hitler!" salute and preparing him for his first day of Hitler youth camp. 

From left to right, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) has dinner with his imaginary friend Adolf (writer/director Taika Waititi), and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). (Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox)

Waititi first became interested in making the film after his Jewish mother gave him the book Caging Skies, which formed the basis of the screenplay. 

Speaking with CBC News at the world premiere in Toronto, he said his original intention was to make a film about intolerance and bigotry. But as hate groups seemed to proliferate and Nazis began to reappear in the news, Jojo's story became even more relevant, he said. 

Filmmaker Taika Waititi speaks to CBC News about his new film, Jojo Rabbit, ahead of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. (CBC)

Waititi points to a 2018 poll in the United States that suggested 66 per cent of millennials didn't understand the relevance of Auschwitz.

"They didn't know what it was, or where it was, or what it meant," Waititi said of the Nazi concentration camp where Jews were murdered en masse during the Second World War. "So I think more than ever, it's vital that we [remind] people of what happened."

But some critics have suggested Waititi could have gone much further. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman says Jojo Rabbit is a movie "that pretends to be audacious when it's actually quite tidy and safe." Indiewire's Eric Khon writes Waititi's whimsical approach "makes Life is Beautiful look like Shoah."

While some critics questioned the wisdom of portraying Hitler as a hipster idiot, Roman Griffin Davis, who played young Jojo, says the film shows the effects of the dictator's reign. 

"He's portrayed as a terrible person, through seeing Germany and these little boys terrified. Yeah, it might seem a bit odd, but he's still portrayed as an evil man."

What some of the initial reactions to the trailer missed is the heart of the film, which focuses on Elsa, the young Jewish woman whom Jojo's mother is hiding from the authorities.  

In Jojo Rabbit, a German boy named Jojo discovers Elsa, a young Jewish woman Jojo's mother is hiding in their home. Thomasin McKenzie, left, plays Elsa, and Roman Griffin Davis, right, is Jojo. (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Sweetness and shock

From the film Boy to Hunt for the Wilderpeople to even Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi excels at stories with hidden centres of sweetness. For all their posturing, his heroes are often quite innocent, as is the case with Jojo, a boy who is desperate to join the cause, until he meets a real Jew. 

As Elsa says to him at one point, "You're not a Nazi, Jojo. You're a 10-year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club."

True, Jojo Rabbit doesn't peer into the heart of darkness of the Third Reich, and many of the more monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime happen off camera.

But as Waititi brings us into Jojo's world, there is a moment where the inhumanity and indifference of the Nazi regime hits home. A moment that left audiences in Toronto gasping.  

Speaking to CBC News, Waititi underlined the importance of finding new ways to explore intolerance.

"If that involves having to bring in fantasy characters and using magic realism and using different techniques and sometimes comedy, so be it. We have to keep telling these stories."


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars red carpet and beyond.  


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