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‘The People’s Joker’ Review: A Wild Card

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The director Vera Drew got in hot water making this DC Comics-inspired origin story about a transgender simulacrum of the Joker, Batman’s frozen-smile nemesis. A disclaimer that now starts the film calls it an unauthorized parody, and any trademark infringement “was not done intentionally.”

Drew’s fearless but illicit approach to filmmaking tracks the film itself: It’s aggressively self-indulgent, cinematically topsy-turvy and exhausting. It’s also singular, daring and an uncompromising cannonball into the queer cinema pool.

Co-written by Drew and Bri LeRose, the story is standard queer movie stuff: A young, closeted transgender girl gets the hell out of small-town America and comes to terms with her identity in big bad Gotham City. But as she’s stymied in her quest for romance and stardom, our heroine morphs into a droll, nasty-minded comedian named Joker the Harlequin.

Visually, the film is a manic but charged assemblage of live action, low-watt digital effects, crude animation and even puppetry. It’s as if Drew storyboarded using the angry diary entries and superhero doodles of the 100-some artists she collaborated with on the film. Too bad her relentless, insider jabs at New York’s comedy scene — she’s no fan of “Saturday Night Live” or Lorne Michaels — come across as sour grapes, offering few universal stakes for people who don’t know U.C.B. from a USB.

Within the film’s confessional chaos lives the spirit of Vaginal Davis, Ryan Trecartin and other maverick queer filmmakers who toyed with genre to torpedo gender. It’s reviving to see an artist take up the cause.

The People’s Joker
Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 minutes. In theaters.

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