The hook for Jojo Rabbit, and the central focal point of the advertising campaign, is that there's little German boy in 1944, Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who like most ten-year-olds just wants to fit in and be admired, and in Germany in 1944, that means that Jojo wants more than anything to grow up to be a Nazi. And like some ten-year-olds, he deals with loneliness and anxiety by talking to an imaginary friend, and his imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). There's a lot more to the story than that - Imaginary Hitler is a single subplot among many in Jojo Rabbit - but this is, I think it's fair to say, the thing. It is the crux of the film's comic identity. The pity, then, is that Jojo Rabbit would be considerably improved if every trace of this was taken out.

It would, honestly, be considerably improved if a lot of things were different. Jojo Rabbit is a terrifically sloppy film, packed with redundancies, plotlines that never really resolve, and a baffling inability to control tone. Baffling, because that has been maybe the one signature strength of writer-director Taika Waititi, adapting Christine Leunen's novel Chasing Skies. Specifically, Jojo Rabbit is in a lot of ways re-running the moods and themes of Waititi's lovely 2010 feature Boy, and his 2016 masterpiece Hunt for the Wilderpeople, both of which center on just barely adolescent boys who are mildly fucked-up and lightly antisocial, and which mix acerbic and morbid deadpan humor with very earnest sentimentality and a frolicsome adventure tone. All of which are equally true of Jojo Rabbit, only here Waititi's delicate touch has failed him: rather than flowing between tones, this film crudely segregates them into separate scenes and locations, and the shifts between moments clunk and clatter.

And that's to say nothing at all about the heinous things that occur when the film enters its final stage, and adds gloomy pathos to the mix; this is a shift that would be enormously difficult for any film to handle, but Jojo Rabbit seems to go out of its way to make things worse by indifferently hopscotching from solemnity to goofing around and back, seemingly at random, and certainly without doing much of anything to help the viewer make sense of the extremes of emotion. I will declare, flatly, that I entirely hate the last part of Jojo Rabbit: it is possible to tell down to the exact shot (a lateral tracking shot ending on a pair of shoes) where the film goes off the rails. It's a tremendously unearned gesture, and once it has been made, the film never recovers, listing helplessly from shticky jokes to bathos and back until the film's second most unearned gesture, a closing musical cue that makes a complete hash of both German history and David Bowie.

But up till that point, the film is fine, honestly. Not better than fine. It's trying to do a whole lot: so Jojo wants to be a Nazi, and he dreams up a version of Hitler whose verbal tics and anachronistic behavior recall the vampires of Waititi's What We Do in the Shadows, and who makes lots of jokes that I do not think that a ten-year-old boy in Nazi Germany would have the capacity to come up with. He also manages to blow himself up and thus has to drop out of the Hitler Youth, but he gets work serving under Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a closeted gay man who has given up on the party as it becomes clear that the Allies are going to win the war in a rout, but sticks with it out of momentum. Jojo also has a single mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who says elliptically anti-Nazi things in an attempt to guide her son away from his ideological path, and they spend many warm hours together. And she has a potentially deadly secret: she's hiding a teenage Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), and Jojo discovers this by accident, but Elsa is quick-witted enough to concoct a scheme to keep the boy from ratting her out, and at the same time demonstrate that his knowledge of Jews is phenomenally off-base.

That's a lot to keep in the air, and that's without mentioning the film's loud style: a lot of bright colors in the sets and costumes (designed by Ra Vincent and Mayes C. Rubeo, respectively), bringing in a kind of child's picture book nostalgia for German traditional art that speaks to the shiny hollowness of Nazi iconography (if pressed, I'd suggest that this element of the film's visual aesthetic is the single best thing about it). Plus it has a great many flat compositions that use rigid tracking shots to further emphasize the rectangular quality of the images, and a sparingly-used ironic soundtrack. At its best, the film finds a way for Waititi's deadpan humor to be retrofit into satire, though it is toothless satire; movies and other pop culture have been making fun of Nazis as gaudy buffoons since the late 1930s, so the bar for doing something other than "Nazis, those clowns, right?" is high. High enough that Jojo Rabbit can't clear it, anyways.

The point being, though, that Jojo Rabbit does have a best, and it's reasonably amusing and very fun to look at. And occasionally insightful: McKenzie's performance as Elsa (the strongest in the film - generally the acting is not a strength, though, marred by all-over-the-map accents and different ideas about how much cartoon wackiness the script is calling for) is full of subtle calculations and little expressions where her hurt at Jojo's bigotry and her scornful feeling of being superior to the little idiot flicker back and forth. The film also has a worst, that tonally incoherent mess of a final act. More than anything, though, it has a whole lot of middling: reflexively dry humor that announces its punchlines too far in advance, a plot that feels like a bunch of things jammed into a blender and swirled around, a murky approach to satire that never advances beyond the "what silly dumb-dumbs" stage and hasn't worked out all the implications of its little narrative asides. It's not as warm as Waititi's two other films about boyhood, though the sweetness of the relationship between Jojo and Rosie (which has far too little screentime) is a reminder of what this filmmaker is capable of when he's not trying to do something self-consciously important. The aggregate is frustratingly mediocre, but this is really all over the map, a film that feels like little more than a whole lot of ideas thrown against a wall. That's annoying enough already, but coming from a director whose best work has such a sure awareness of its own personality, it's a little heartbreaking, on top of it.