Doc of the Day: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Posted in Days of Docs by - March 13, 2012

 Get a closer look at the famous comedian. She’s more than a plastic surgery punchline.

Dir. Ricki Stern & Anne Sunberg, 2010, 85 min

I’ve only ever known Joan Rivers as a red carpet parasite, a joke of pop culture’s leftovers, a wash-up. This movie taught me three things about her. First: she’s actually really funny. Second: she’s very influential in the world of stand-up comedy. Third: she’s a human being. That last one should go without saying, but I confess I’d never really paid much thought to it. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work strips away all the cheap clichés about Rivers’ plastic surgery and E! “who are you wearing” personality, and gets to the heart of the real woman behind it.

The movie does so mostly through Rivers’ own words. She dedicates her first performance in the film to making fun of herself. She jokes about aging, about her lack of relevance, about her willingness to take any gig. She’s built a comedic persona around self-deprecation, and archival clips show that she’s always been this way. She originally caught attention for her willingness to use self-criticism to tackle larger cultural topics, and her brashness shocked audiences at the time.

I never knew Rivers was an honest-to-god important figure how comedy’s developed in recent decades. She was a major player in The Tonight Show and opened the door for more women to become comics. She’s been a trailblazer, and in that light her modern situation now looks not just sad but unfair. It seems that everything broke down after her fall-out with Johnny Carson and NBC, the failure of her talk show on FOX, and her husband’s suicide.

Of course, many people, especially those older than me, already know all of this. This doc isn’t a history lesson, so it won’t bore them. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg get an inside look at how Rivers develops her jokes and routine, as well as her mundane “normal” days. The film covers a year in Joan’s life, as she goes from gig to gig while putting together a stage play and competing in The Celebrity Apprentice. She’s just as colorful and brassy in her day-to-day as she is on stage. She’s fun to hang with, which is crucial for the movie to work.

That sense of good humor contrasts well with Joan’s darker aspects. While she keeps up a strong front, you get the sense that past tragedies and failures still hang heavily on her. Her husband’s death in particular still haunts her. And while she’s always the first to make fun of herself, the fact that she just isn’t “hot” anymore does seem to affect her. Joan is a gunslinger who’s outlived the Old West, and struggles to find her place in the world.

But the movie isn’t a dour affair in the least. Rivers easily brushes her pain aside and remains defiantly upbeat. She’s a relentless workaholic, driven to fill every gap in her calendar. She’ll never lapse into obscurity, not if she can help it. Even as old friends die (one sequence has her performing at a memorial for George Carlin), she soldiers on. She’s a comedy monster (or maybe a cyborg, what with all that plastic), and she’ll keep going until she drops dead.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is about doing what you love in spite of (or maybe to spite) everything that stands in your way, whether that be age, unpopularity, tragedy, or what have you. In that sense, it embodies Joan’s indomitable will. The movie stumbles sometimes; a subplot about Joan’s fracturing relationship with her friend and assistant is severely underdeveloped, for one thing. But overall it’s funny, sweet, and a generally good time.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

Leave Your Comment

%d bloggers like this: