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“The People’s Joker,” a scandalous IP-on-acid coming-out comic-book psychodrama, is a movie that has all the earmarks of an underground/ midnight/guerrilla-cinema sensation. Vera Drew, who directed and co-wrote it, plays the title character, a mentally fractured aspiring stand-up comedian who bills herself as Joker the Harlequin. She wears a green wig parted down the middle, white makeup with big jagged dark blotches around the eyes, a razory red lipstick grin, along with a purple jacket and fishnets that make her, in every way possible, a transgressive presence. Onstage, when she puts an inhaler up to her mouth and draws in a breath of Smylex, the feel-happy drug prescribed to her as a child, she’ll let out a cackle of laughter so derisive it sounds like she’s going to fracture her own rib. She’s the maniacal Joker of DC legend, as well as an outlaw parody of the Joker and also a discordantly sincere trans heroine who is using the Joker’s persona to present who she is to the world.

The movie, which Peter Debruge reviewed brilliantly when it premiered last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, is diabolically playful — a threadbare comic-book odd-yssey, one that takes place in a free-associational media zone that suggest the channel-surfing hall of mirrors of “Natural Born Killers” crossed with a public-access knockoff of “Network” crossed with “Phantom of the Paradise.” That Vera Drew had the daring to draw on the fabled DC iconography without getting permission to do so was an act of underground-film bravado. What seals the aesthetic fearlessness of it is that it’s exactly what the Joker would do. The film feels, in every scabrously cheeky moment, as if Vera Drew had to make it, copyright law be damned. Yet she lucked out where Todd Haynes, the director of “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” did not. The corporate powers agreed to let “The People’s Joker” be released (it opened in limited release this weekend).  

“The People’s Joker” is an act of pure fan obsession. It toys with the idea that those who are driven to extremes of cosplay are truer to the spirit of comic books than almost anyone else. And that’s even more true when you’re dealing with a figure like the Joker. If you consider the entire history of mainstream comic-book movies, going back to the 1978 “Superman,” there’s a reason why the two great characterizations of the Joker — Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight” and Joaquin Phoenix’s in “Joker” — stand apart. There’s a reason why both actors won Oscars for their performances in a Hollywood that tends to strand comic-book movies on awards night.

The Joker, as portrayed in both those films, is a character who has been scalded, tortured, baptized in pain. Ledger’s smile is literally carved into his face; Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck as an incel whose life feels like it’s a conspiracy to keep him locked in the warped prison of his despair. These are men who become the Joker because they have cracked. And it’s that split in their well-being, the exposed nerve that runs down the center of their identities, that connects them to the audience.

That sense of pain is the taking-off point for Vera Drew’s performance in “The People’s Joker.” Her Joker the Harlequin has a dead name ­— it’s uttered several times in the film — and we see her as a soft sensitive kid growing up, when she already felt like the girl she was inside and tried to reveal that to her shrew of a mother (Lynn Downey), only to get slapped down. “The People’s Joker” is a burlesque, but it’s also a confession — of the agony of having one’s identity not merely rejected but denied. Drew’s performance is her own variation on Heath Ledger’s cuckoo pain-freak depravity and Joaquin Phoenix’s miserablism-turned-prancing-homicidal-clown vengeance. Part of the film’s scrappy exhilaration is that Joker the Harlequin’s personality takes throwing shade into a rock ‘n’ roll zone of poison-pill effrontery. The movie is as scathing as a rough episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” as merciless as Hedwig on a bad day. It’s about Joker the Harlequin saying, “This is how far I’m forced to go to express who I am.” It’s about the demonization of trans consciousness creating a criminal.

At the black-box nightclub, Joker the Harlequin finds a lover who is also a trans stand-up comedian and Joker: Mr. J (Kane Distler), who models himself on Jared Leto’s Joker (a red flag, perhaps, that he’s not going to be all that). Mr. J has the word “damage” tattooed on his forehead, and he turns out to be such an abused head case that he’s bad news: a needy narcissist and gaslighter. His backstory is a piece of work. It involves Bruce Wayne, who adopted him as a teenager, and you can guess what happened then.

“The People’s Joker” takes off on the whole straight world, which it presents as a funhouse-mirror sham, right down to its skewed satire of Lorne Michaels and “Saturday Night Live.” But part of the thrust of the film’s comedy is that it takes off on the trans world too, satirizing everything from pronouns to Mr. J’s didactic gender-theory Marxism to the emotions of victimization. “The People’s Joker” is a movie of its moment, its ahead-of-the-curve queer consciousness. Yet it’s also a comic-book movie in the richest and truest sense. It’s about the desperation and power and sheer compulsion to become someone else in order to be who you are.      



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