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Refreshingly euphoric The People's Joker a fair use satirical slap to the face

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Vera Drew
Vera Drew

Theaters (April 17 in Seattle)

The People's Joker is an absurdist, autobiographical, mixed-media, DC Comics satire that pushes the definition of "fair use" to its breaking point. Utilizing a crazy, frequently genius, and sometimes exhausting mixture of filmmaking techniques — including live action, green screen, stop-motion, and hand-drawn and digital animation — writer-director Vera Drew has created a uniquely chaotic visual symphony. I've never seen anything quite like it.

For Trans viewers, I cannot say this is the easiest watch in the world. This fractured fairy tale of birth and rebirth, gender epiphany, and sexual revolution hits close to home. Granted, that's by design. As much as Drew's feature-length debut is a brazen evisceration of the comic book cinematic status quo and a giddy middle finger to corporate, cookie-cutter comedic staples (most notably Saturday Night Live and, more specifically, its longtime impresario Lorne Michaels), it is more pointedly a journey through self-acceptance, including all the messily depressive speed bumps encountered by most who drive down this path.

But Drew's absurdist frolic through major Hollywood studio intellectual property is thankfully deeply and (even better) cathartically hilarious. No matter how dark some of the picture's twists and turns prove to be, the director refuses to drown things in melodramatic treacle or emotionally smothering ennui. Her satirical attention to every detail is never in doubt and, because of this, The People's Joker is a deeply funny explosion of imagination and originality that only gets better as its wackadoodle scenario moves forward.

A coherent synopsis is likely not even possible. Drew's shenanigans revolve around a closeted Trans girl (played by the director) who leaves the conservative nowhere of Smallville for the cruel, dark streets of Gotham City with aspirations of becoming a famous comedian. One thing leads to another, and she teams up with a group of fellow misfits to form an "antic-comedy" conclave where they can all hone their craft, come together as a chosen family, and discover the person who has been not so quietly hiding inside all along.

Also, Batman is around, making life difficult for pretty much everyone, as he has his own sexual-repression issues to deal with.

Simple enough? Not really. Drew creates a world that cycles through colorful bursts of animation, entirely computer-generated locations, and references to everything from the Adam West Batman series to the smash big-screen adventures of the Caped Crusader (most notably those from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher) to even Todd Phillips's Joker. There are comic book references galore, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by Robert Wuhl (who isn't certain what he's legally able to do or say), Smylex usage, and even a nonbinary transformation into Little Shop of Horrors territory.

It's all hectic and unhinged, and Drew throws so many gags at the wall that it isn't shocking that several of them fail to stick. But as a travelogue into the headspace of a Trans person dealing with a cacophony of ever-changing issues that always feel as if they're mutating into something unexpected with each tick of the clock, it's still admirably close to perfect. Being who you feel you were meant to be isn't easy for anyone, let alone a Trans comedian with an affinity for youthfully pseudo-Goth outfits seemingly snagged from a Hot Topic knockoff store, an affinity for garish clown makeup, and an addiction to Smylex.

Did I also mention that Penguin (a scene-stealing Nathan Faustyn) once fantasized about being a cop and then flirted with the idea of becoming a vigilante superhero before choosing to pursue a career in comedy instead? And that they have a thing for fish? Yeah. That's happening too. And don't even get me started on what's going on with Clayface, Poison Ivy, and The Riddler.

Still, as deranged as this unquestionably is, Drew knows exactly when to slap the viewer in the face or punch them in the gut with a sudden jolt of nakedly raw dramatic truthfulness. Our heroine here ultimately renames herself Joker the Harlequin, but that doesn't stop others from frequently dead-naming or misgendering her. A running gag is that most of these instances are either impossible to hear or bleeped out entirely, all of which makes the one moment when Joker's old name is clearly heard pack a devastating wallop.

Drew has worked behind the scenes in the comedy underground for quite some time. Her credits include everything from Comedy Bang! Bang! to Tim Heidecker's On Cinema at the Cinema. She's also had a creative hand in Sacha Baron Cohen's Who Is America (which scored her an Emmy nomination for editing) and on the series Beef House for creators Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. All of which goes to say, Drew's sketch-comedy credentials are not to be scoffed at.

Clearly made for a relative pittance, utilizing every guerilla filmmaking technique in the book (and likely a handful of new ones the director came up with on the fly), Drew's creation is firing on all cylinders. This superheroic takedown treasures the subject of its satire, even as it gleefully eviscerates it. This parable of Trans self-actualization is a coming-out story in which suffering is par for the course, depression is a mercilessly debilitating foe, and internalized pain is a self-inflicted wound that rarely heals as one hopes it will.

Nonetheless, The People's Joker is a breath of fresh air. Drew entertains and educates, but never in a way in which one feeling mitigates or takes the place of the other. Repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience, the protagonist's honesty is refreshingly euphoric, and this allows the laughs her cartoonish antics generate to make a lasting impression that many viewers — Gay, straight, Lesbian, Bi, Trans, whatever — are going to treasure forever. I sure as heck know I am.