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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) ***1/2

January 9, 2011

written by: Ricki Stern
produced by: Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg & Seth Keal
directed by: Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg
rated R (for language and sexual humor)
84 min.
U. S. release date: June 11, 2010
DVD/Bluray release date: December 14, 2010
In the beginning of “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” we immediately become up close and personal as the legendary comic is seen applying makeup to her face. Right there and then, it’s clear that this is a behind-the-mask look that at the Queen of Comedy. This opening is a blunt and shocking reminder how bold Rivers is and also serves as a statement at how vulnerable she is willing to be. As her manufactured face fills the screen with up-close shots, it becomes clear that nothing is gonna be held back in this documentary which touches on her storied career while a crew follows Rivers for a year . At times, it is frightening to watch and maintains a consistent revealing approach and uncensored look at a woman who is often relegated as a surgery freak.
Behind every surgery freak though, there is a person with feelings, a mind, and a heart. That’s what “A Piece of Work” is all about. Rivers takes us home with her, on tour (literally, we’re in a plane or drive around with her), and backstage. From book signings, to QVC, to her stint on Celebrity Apprentice, it’s all covered here. She freely admits that she’s determined to be everywhere, taking any kind of gig that is offered her, to maintain the lavish New York home (she describes her home interior as a “Marie Antoinette” motif ) her and her crew inhabit.

During the course of the film, Rivers turns 75, and at no point does she show signs of slowing down. Her manager calls her “a chronic workaholic,” but considering the male-dominated business she’s in and the time period she started, it’s no surprise. We spend some time at home going over River’s “books” with her assistant Jocelyn as the examine her various appearances and engagements. For Joan, a blank schedule is a death sentence. She flips through previous books, loaded with gigs, “That’s a good page,” she says reflectively, “that’s happiness.”


Several scenes stand out, one in particular in which she nervously accepts a show at a Wisconsin casino. She’s a fish-out-of-water in this conservative country crown amid a cold winter landscape, that is until she hits the stage. Upon her arrival though, she is seen looking over her accommodations. Let’s just say they are much less than what she is used to and in all seriousness, she advises an assistant to get the check before the show. She may have shown her apprehension as to what type of crowd she may find, but that doesn’t stop her from slaying them on stage. Even during a specific uncomfortable spot, when a heckler interrupts to protest an offensive joke (sure, it is but hullo, it’s Joan Rivers!), she handles it well. Without missing a beat, she burns the guy in his seat. Afterward, as she signs autographs she admits she felt bad for the guy, at the same time though a nearby fan voices her wholehearted support with the way she handled it. 
 I found that whole sequence to be amazing on  many levels as it reveals both the human and the stage persona of Rivers all in one sitting. It becomes obvious why she still tours and does what she does yet she also spells it out for viewers, “This is where I belong,” she confesses, “The only time I’m truly, truly happy is when I’m on a stage.”

Stern and Sundeberg combine home footage style with past and present interviews with Rivers, while touching on her biography. Thankfully, it’s not an A&E formula, instead we dig into some great vintage video nuggets of Rivers on The Mike Douglas Show, The Jack Parr Show, and, of course, Johnny Carson’s praise of her. This clips aren’t just shown to convince us of her longevity, we hear her comment on her appearances and (the elephant in the room) her appearance. She also goes over her marriage, her husband Edgar’s suicide, and the difficulties of balancing her career with family. No one confirms this more than her daughter, Melissa, who seems to inadvertently resemble Joan in both looks and attitude. The film spends some time on their tumultuous relationship, such as their odd reenactment of the aftermath of the suicide for an 80’s TV movie that supposedly served as catharsis, and their awkward involvement on “Celebrity Apprentice” together.
If you didn’t know much of anything about Joan Rivers, when thing you’ll walk away with from this film is that she is vulnerable. Her life may come across as sad and filled with insecurities, but she continuously admits she never wants to concede that she arrives. This is evident in an autobiographical monologue/biographical play called “Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress”, which she takes to the Edinburgh festival. Her response to poor reviews from the show, despite an outpouring of UK fan support, shows a wounded Rivers dealing with the harshness of reality. It doesn’t matter how long she’s been in the biz, the bad reviews are still felt.
She may be known as thick-skinned, foul-mouthed broad, but she still gets hurt. Still, she subjects herself to the hurt, like when she accepts a Comedy Central because she thinks she needs the cash.  Regarding the show, known for its ruthless insults, “They keep telling you it’s an honor,” she muses, “If I had invested wisely, I wouldn’t be doing this.” Knowing this, the footage of the roast is painful in their predictable disrespect and vile tone. The camera holds on Rivers reflection of it all and we see her attempt to hold back the pain.
Those moments may seem to tilt our feelings of her in one deliberate direction and that’s fine seeing as how all documentaries have one. Sometimes I felt bad for Rivers considering all that she’s been through but her acerbic demeanor washed that away and left me to just shake my head and laugh along with her. I definitely learned more about her than the “Can we talk?” persona from the 80’s. Ultimately, the result is a rare movie that lives up to its title in more ways than one.
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