Whether her humor has been directed at herself over the years or outward, bluntness and honesty are Joan Rivers’ trademarks. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that a documentary about a year in her life would be equally direct, but when we see her 76-year-old, surgery-altered face in close up before the layers of daily makeup are applied, it’s a little shocking. It’s also a hint that we’re about to see a side of Rivers we haven’t really seen before. Alternately moving and hilarious, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work touches on big topics like the fear of aging and of being a woman in a male dominated industry, but it’s also a more personal look at what drives one woman to seek out a life on stage in front of an audience and at what cost.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg alternate between archival footage, direct interviews with Rivers and the people closest to her, and fly-on-the-wall observations of the comedienne as she goes about her days, booking and performing stand up gigs in tiny clubs, hawking her wares on QVC or working on an autobiographical play about her life. Along the way we get the highlights and lowlights of Rivers’ life and career over her 50 plus years in the entertainment industry; most importantly her rise and eventual falling out with mentor Johnny Carson and her subsequent ill-fated late night talk show which led to the death of her husband Edgar and put her career into a tailspin from which she’s never completely recovered. What finally emerges is the picture of a completely career-driven woman who could probably retire comfortably but who would rather die than stop clawing and fighting.

One area that is only touched on lightly is the extreme amount of plastic surgery Rivers has undergone over the years. The reasons for it are never explicitly stated, yet everything we learn about her points to a deep insecurity that has not only fueled her great success, it has also left her feeling empty, inadequate and unsatisfied. It’s admirable to see how much drive and vigor Rivers still has at 76, but it’s also unsettling to see the emptiness that feeds it. Whether she’s getting heckled at a club in Nowheresville Wisconsin, being humiliated at a celebrity roast on national television or debasing herself on a run of Celebrity Apprentice (the only way she could get back on NBC, the network that disowned her after the Carson fiasco), there seems to be nothing Rivers won’t do to stake out her little corner of the spotlight. A large part of her motivation is money, but in her world, how much you get paid is a function of how much you’re loved.

It’s all a little depressing, but at the same time Rivers is still very funny and even more crude and irascible. She does a bit about her daughter Melissa’s resistance to pose topless in Playboy for example that is hilarious and all the more shocking coming out of the mouth of a mother. Rivers’ omnipresent humor protects her even as it flows forth from the darkest parts of her personality and no subject is sacred as she bluntly explains to the Wisconsin heckler.

If you only know Rivers from her famously acerbic red carpet commentary on E! or the TV Guide Channel in the 1990s, A Piece of Work offers a surprising side of a familiar face. For those of us who remember her in her heyday, it’s a partially comforting reminder of what we always liked about her before the plastic surgery and cheesy TV appearances. Though her naked desperation to succeed disturbs, Joan is still Joan. She’s as funny as ever and clearly will be for as long as she can find an audience.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. USA 2010. Written and directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Cinematography by Charles Miller with additional cinematography by Seth Keal, Guy Mossman and William Rexer II. Music score composed by Paul Brill. Edited by Penelope Falk. With Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Melissa Rivers, Jon Stewart, Richard Belzer, Denis Leary, Gary Shandling, Lily Tomlin, Bill Maher, Brad Garrett and Don Rickles. 1 hour 24 minutes. MPAA rated R for language and sexual humor. 4 stars (out of 5)

9 Responses to “Review: Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work (2010) ****”

  1. I can safely say that I have zero interest in Joan Rivers but the trailer really intrigued me and I look forward to checking this one out.

  2. Most documentaries are so wrapped up in trying to convince an audience to do something, I’m excited to see one with entertainment value, and an inspirational message

  3. Like Joel, I have absolutely no interest in Joan Rivers (obnoxiousness incarnate, I’m afraid) but the four-star review here, where you really peel away the gauze, makes quite a persuasive case. For example:

    “It’s all a little depressing, but at the same time Rivers is still very funny and even more crude and irascible. She does a bit about her daughter Melissa’s resistance to pose topless in Playboy for example that is hilarious and all the more shocking coming out of the mouth of a mother. Rivers’ omnipresent humor protects her even as it flows forth from the darkest parts of her personality and no subject is sacred as she bluntly explains to the Wisconsin heckler.”

    This would definitely hold some interest.

    We shall see what we shall see.

  4. I really enjoy documentaries that take a subject I would otherwise have zero interest in, if not negative interest, and use all the tools they have to get me completely engrossed in the subject despite myself. If the storytelling’s good enough, almost anything can be compelling. This sounds like one of those.

    And yeah hank, I agree it’s a refreshing change from all the social activism docs out there. Those have there place too, though.

    Nice review, Craig.

  5. Joel and Sam, that’s exactly how I felt when I was reading the Sundance reviews, but the movie turned me around. I think even if you ultimately find her repellent (and you might, the filmmakers never try to make her likable), the doc is still fascinating.

    Hank and Jennybee, why do you hate dolphins???

  6. I love Joan! Entertainment weekly said her doc was the must see movie of the summer, ( I already saw it lol) and they are absolutely right!

  7. I saw this documentary on Monday night with Lucille and our friend Bob, and found myself laughing out loud for the first time in quite a while.

    Craig has it called exactly right, in my estimation. Somehow after seeing this, I feel I like Joan a lot more now. Yeah, she’s an irascible force on stage, but what tireless energy. A born natural.

  8. Wow Sam. I was worried you were going to hate this one.

    Thrilled that you liked it.

    As I said, I also went in very skeptically, but I came away with a lot of respect for her.

  9. Aye, Craig, she is some kind of an icon for sure, and I concur on the respect quotient. Thanks for that excitement at my opinion, much appreciated.

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