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Joaquin Phoenix is almost too good and ‘Joker’ is almost too real

 “Joker” (Rated C)

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Dwight’s Rating:

This is the most-timely film of the year!

It joins a select list of pictures that perfectly capture the essence of mental illness, illustrating just how close even those seemingly sane amongst us are from the edge of a mental break, and especially how those already afflicted by mental health issues can be so easily driven further down the dark corridors of insanity.

Opening just days before World Mental Health Day yesterday, in a world still so unwilling to address these matters, we do have so many examples of the amazing things that can happen with treatment and medication. There’s often no reason for so many to be suffering in this way.

And arguably, as more people with mental challenges are running countries all over the world than at any time in recent history, we have more than enough proof that mental illness need not be a barrier to success.

Forgive that cheeky jab at you-know-who, and you-know-who-else, and you-also-know-who, plus you-know-him too, and the others. But trust me, the timing is just right!

And yes, this is a review of “Joker”!

Yup, that Joker – the cartoony villain from the comic book. That clown who just loves to terrorize the brooding Batman. But “Joker” certainly is not kid’s stuff.

And true, the Batman film franchise often goes dark, as we’ve seen with “The Dark Knight”. But rarely have things felt this realistic.

Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks: the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him.

Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

If you’re looking for the type of gimmicky, gadget-filled, gee-whizardry, goofiness that we often see with comic book-based superhero movies, look elsewhere! This is more in line with Shakespearean tragedy.

While only psychopaths left the aforementioned “The Dark Knight” smiling and skipping down the aisles of the theater, even that morbid picture was at times whimsical and over-the-top with its absurd and extreme violence – much like you’d expect from this genre.

“Joker”, however, is the very definition of what’s called, “Keeping it real!”

Every aspect of it is absolutely possible, believable and understandable. You see people like Arthur Fleck almost every day, and you wonder about them. You might even know several Arthur Flecks. Could be in your family!

Could be you!

Many people are going to be uncomfortable watching this. The harsh and relatable realities of the world, driving an already challenged man to homicidal mania? Some will indeed see themselves. Many of us threaten to do worse after just 20 minutes driving on our streets!

But there’s still a lot to enjoy here. “Joker” does have a sense of humor, and few will be all depressed about life afterwards. I’d be willing to bet that many more people will be smiling and chuckling after watching “Joker” than after something like “The Dark Knight”. (And they won’t all be psychopaths!)

“Joker” is blessed with a fine supporting cast, including Oscar-winner Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy (TV’s “Six Feet Under”) and Zazie Beetz (“Deadpool 2” and TV’s “Atlanta”).

But unquestionably, this is “The Joaquin Phoenix Show”. It’s a phenomenal, tour de force performance. Unlike with the late Heath Ledger, who gave the performance of his career (and won a posthumous Oscar) acting like a crazed lunatic in “The Dark Knight” as The Joker, Phoenix is especially creepy because it doesn’t really feel like he’s acting. It just seems so effortless, so natural. It’s unsettling!

Is he really just acting?

Whatever it is, it is award-worthy! And it makes “Joker” a must-see, if only to witness this master-class performance.

Co-written (along with Scott Silver) and directed by Todd Phillips (who directed all three films in “The Hangover” franchise), “Joker” doesn’t break any new ground with its general storyline. And the lack of fantastical elements will be disappointing for some fans.

But you get the feeling that this is the whole point. Some of us are tired of the motivations of movie villains making absolutely no sense. The Batman brand has done a better job with this than others, and “Joker” follows the underappreciated Batman TV series “Gotham” and its amazing job of telling the touching backstory of Oswald Cobblepot and how he became The Penguin.

And it’s not about making excuses for or even feeling compassion for “bad people”. It’s that we need to recognize that the way we treat people – many of whom are hurting because of the horrible cards our world has dealt them – can lead to them becoming horrible monsters and villains.

So, if the only way to deliver this important message is through a comic book villain, then the time has indeed come!

• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email dwight@nasguard.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.

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