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Altered Innocence

MOVIE REVIEW
The People's Joker (2024)

The sole showing of “The People’s Joker” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 was hugely important in film history. When legal threats cause any film to be pulled from a festival that means that something important has gone wrong, and of course nothing is more interesting that something that’s officially been pulled. But this is no “Sita Sings the Blues,” a highly personal animated story of one woman’s very bad breakup which never got a mainstream release thanks to music licensing rights. Instead, “The People’s Joker” uses characters from the DC Universe to discuss the brandification of our imaginations, the difficulties in maintaining an artistic career, the after-effect of abusive relationships and how all of these things are heightened when you’re trans. To say it is one of the most important recent American movies is an understatement. It’s entirely fresh, extremely funny and with a talent for meeting the zeitgeist that can’t be bought. It never should have been threatened, as the backlash has only brought more publicity, especially since the use of the “Batman” characters is done in an exceptionally personally (and parodic) way. It’s an extraordinary film.

The movie is done in a melange of styles, live and animated, that somehow combine to achieve the feeling of comic books in their mashup of tone. The animation, which cowriter-director-star Vera Drew crowdsourced from over a hundred different artists, also reflects the different ways “Batman” has been represented in art, from pixel-dot stills on the funny pages to the after-school cartoon show from the ’90s to the more recent C.G.I.-heavy superhero blockbusters. It’s amazing how organically it all flows together. The story follows Joker the Harlequin (Ms. Drew) as she leaves behind her deadname, her mother (Lynn Downey, who grounds the entire movie) and small-town life for Gotham City, where the only people legally allowed to be comedians work for a show that’s not “Saturday Night Live.” At the dispiriting auditions, Joker meets Penguin (Nathan Faustyn), and together they agree to set up an “anticomedy” club night in an abandoned amusement park. Going their own way is worth the risk of arrest. Besides only “jokemen” are allowed to be funny on television; harlequins just get to stand around looking sexy. At the new comedy club, Joker falls hard for Mr. J (Kane Distler), a transman whose support of Joker’s transition is predicated on keeping Joker in his thrall; there’s a literal gaslight used in one sequence, too. But as Joker develops their comic persona and becomes comfortable with her true self (by falling into a vat of estrogen in a factory – the cheery narration says even a fantasy can’t provide gender-affirming healthcare) she also discovers the power her unique and original voice has. But this means she also discovers the lengths some powerful people, such as Batman (voiced by Phil Braun) and Lorne Michaels (voiced by Maria Bamford), will go to control it.

Writing it down like this does nothing to capture how well and easily the movie flows onscreen. Lauren Kezon’s makeup is so good – the melting harlequin mask on Ms. Drew, especially – that the transitions between animation and the human actors are natural and amusing. The combination of styles and the human actors have nothing but charm and terrific costumes by Laura Wheeler. The dialogue somehow captures an outlook that’s common in smaller-scale artistic circles (2021’s “Poser,” about a young woman’s attempts to infiltrate the Columbus music scene, is another great example of this) but rarely shown in mainstream American cinema, where success is always a given despite the hiccups on the way. And somehow it’s totally inspiring that Ms. Drew understood that the process of finding this success – whether in your career, by making peace with your mother or just being happy in your own body – is the point of all our lives and therefore the beating heart of any great art in any format. Anyone who has struggled to find their place will absolutely relate.

The fact it’s all done entirely in Batman’s world as a stand-in for modern America and somehow also makes the entire thing more believable instead of less. The confines of the comic superhero form allow the stupidities of modern life their full impact – whether that’s a billionaire on a reality-TV dating show or explicitly stating a person’s hunger for career success is directly based on the size of their genitalia. The disclaimer at the start is clear that fair use and parody are protected rights especially in a personal story; and it’s hard to see how a personal story this layered and complex could have existed in any other form. But as with all things, honesty and charm goes a very long way, and “The People’s Joker” has those in abundance. It’s a total joy, and deserves as wide an audience as possible.

PS – The choice of song in the key scene between young Joker (Griffin Kramer) and his mother is chef’s-kiss perfection.

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