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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work




The problem I usually have with documentaries is that, while I find them enlightening, I rarely connect to them on an emotional level. My intellect is stimulated, but I don’t usually feel anything. The last documentary that made me feel anything was “Sicko.” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” succeeds in the same way. Here’s a woman who is a bit of a joke and an easy Hollywood punching bag. But she shows herself to be quite a complex individual. She’s of course funny and a workaholic. She’s also quite vulnerable and doesn’t take criticism well at all. At times, she’s quite likeable and very sympathetic. Other times, she seems twisted and self-absorbed. I suppose the real Rivers is a little of both. She’s also a joy to spend 90 minutes in a theater with, should the opportunity present itself to you.

The film opens with a shot that tells you everything you need to know about this film and its intensions. The shot is an extreme close-up of Rivers without any makeup on. For someone so presumably consumed with her looks, this is a surprising image that tells you this film is going to show you the real Rivers. Like her or not (and many won’t), this is her.

The rest of the film is loosely broken up into three sections. The first introduces us to the woman and follows Rivers as she develops an autobiographical play and performs it in the UK. The second follows her during her time on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” And the final one shows her on the road across America doing comedy shows. Interspersed with these segments are sidebars about Rivers’ past—her marriage, her time with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” her relationship with her daughter Melissa, and her annual Thanksgiving charity work.

The two biggest things I took away from the film are that Rivers is obsessive (desperate?) about working and that she is incredibly insecure—perhaps the two complement each other. At one point, she is trying to book a commercial. She tells the ad agency’s representative that she’ll wear diapers, anything, to land a gig. After seeing this film, I believe she would. She’s also incredibly self-doubting. When her play opens in London to good, not great, reviews, she immediately decides it won’t see the light of day in New York. She says she wouldn’t be able to bear the criticism. And when she agrees to do a Comedy Central roast—well, let’s just say, it’s not pretty.

One of the most enlightening, and in some ways off-putting, scenes in the film is when she gets heckled at a show in rural Wisconsin. Rivers makes a joke about hating kids but thinking Helen Keller would be tolerable, and a man yells that he thinks she isn’t funny, but mean-spirited. Rivers lays into him. She doesn’t hold back at all, and while I hold the belief that comedians should be able to defend themselves as they see fit against hecklers, her expletive-laden tirade crossed a few lines. What was so telling about this scene, though, was just how insecure Rivers is. When one man, a nobody in her life, criticizes her, she viciously lashes out.

I really did find this film fascinating for just how complicated it made its star seem. In addition to that, it’s also quite funny. Rivers hasn’t lost much in 75 years. I’d argue that her best bits are the more recent ones. Most documentaries are intellectual exercises, but not this one. It felt refreshing—not at all like sitting through a lecture. I wasn’t a fan of Rivers before. I’m not sure I’m a fan of Rivers now. But a can definitely say I’m a fan of “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” and I would recommend it to just about anyone.

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