Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work: movie review

IFC Films/AP
Joan Rivers’s raw act and complex persona are laid bare in ‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.’

In the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," the famous, and famously strident, comedienne tells us: "When I am on stage, it is the only time I am truly happy." Judging from this movie, she doesn't look very happy on stage, either. She looks kind of angry.

But maybe anger and happiness mean the same thing to her. After all, at another point in the film she declares, "I'm furious about everything. Anger fuels the comedy."

Welcome to the on-screen psychoanalysis of Joan Rivers, of which she seems equal parts willing participant and antagonist. The filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg followed Rivers around for a good portion of her 76th year as she shuttles between gigs stretching from the Edinburgh Fringe Fest to a casino club in northern Wisconsin. She's always in motion, even when she's sitting still. Her greatest fear is an empty calendar.

Stern and Sundberg have previously made movies about such subjects as the genocide in Darfur, so they must have been well steeled for Rivers's juggernaut. Still, their attempt to capture the "real" Rivers raises the question – who is that? After more than 40 years on the comedy circuit, Rivers is so thoroughly a show-business animal that she herself may not know the answer. Or care.

Should we? This may depend on how much you like, or are fascinated by Joan Rivers. We are told repeatedly in this film, by her assistants, by acolytes such as Kathy Griffin, and, most of all, by herself, that she was a groundbreaker. Before she came on the scene, so the story goes, female comics talked nice, they didn't bring up sexual unpleasantries, they weren't raw.

It would have been better if the filmmakers, to bolster this claim, had included more of her early comedy clips. (One that they do include is a tame-by-today's-standards riff on abortion.) Despite what this movie is telling us, Rivers was far from a female Lenny Bruce. She was and is more like an X-rated Jewish Phyllis Diller. Most people know her from her R- and PG-rated TV appearances, but the documentary emphasizes Rivers's comedy club shows where she's startlingly bawdy.

Griffin, in praise of Rivers, says at one point that the pinnacle of a great career is that "you're still doing it." In other words, we are being asked to appreciate Rivers not only for her comedy skills but also for her show-must-go-on endurance.

Of course, as Rivers herself admits, her lifestyle demands much money, which partly explains the endurance – not to mention the QVC appearances, the line of clothes, of fragrance, of just about everything. Her New York brownstone, from the inside, resembles a rococo Versailles. "This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money," she proudly tells the camera.

Rivers's life is so tightly bound up in the biz that she can say, while trudging to her Wisconsin gig, that "you leave New York, you leave L.A., you leave the world" – adding, not so convincingly, "but that's what makes it charming." She can declare that "my career is an actress's career – I play a comedienne." She demands to be taken seriously as an actress and yet her entire career is based on her "Can We Talk" persona. (She federally trademarked that phrase, by the way.)

The film's biggest unexplored question: Why is someone with a reputation for laying bare the truth so addicted to plastic surgery? Maybe it's just her show-biz pragmatism acting up. In a world that worships youth, try to look young. Trouble is, seeing is not always believing. Grade: B (Rated R for language and sexual humor.)

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