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Pretty When She Smiles

The People’s Joker

by Hope Madden

When Vera Drew’s The People’s Joker premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Warner Bros. and their lawyers promptly shut it down.

How in keeping with the spirit of the film, an autobiographical glimpse into the filmmaker’s transition that skewers homogenized corporate-controlled art. A multimedia collage of sorts, the film sutures live action with animation to tell of a young person, fed up with their narcissistic mother and absent father, numbed by the conveniently prescribed “Smylex” that’s helped keep reality at bay lo these many years. The numbness doesn’t keep our hero from heading to Gotham City to fail wildly as a comic, though.

Moments in the film that directly address the filmmaker’s own life story deliver an emotional punch that somehow feels at ease inside this wickedly satirical take on the death of fringe art.

Vera Drew also stars as the performer who becomes Joker, then Joker the Harlequin, her deadname being bleeped throughout the film, a la Kill Bill. The transition from put-upon son to underground comic outcast to what she was meant to be all along creates a strong and emotional structure for the film.

In its own way, The People’s Joker homages as much as it lambasts. The film is dedicated to Joel Schumacher, whose Batman Forever provided young Joker his first inkling that he was not who he was meant to be.

The film takes aim at Saturday Night Live and superhero culture as essentially a hollow impersonation of what once was outsider art, and it achieves its aims by being, very clearly, outsider art.

Gotham City—ever the cesspool—withers under the fascist rule of Batman and Lorne Michaels, whose United Clown Bureau Live (clearly SNL) is the only legal form of comedy in the city.

Batman’s not all he’s caped up to be, either.

It’s an incredibly impressive effort both behind and in front of the camera. Her film is wildly imaginative but devastatingly personal at the same time. But her clear-eyed image of corporate comedy has even more bite.