Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work "exerts a car-wreck fascination" as it examines the comedian's life and career. Critics love the film and say, "For those who know Rivers only from her red-carpet interviews, this doc will be a revelation."
The film, which opens today in New York and Los Angeles, follows Joan's 75th year, as she struggles to book appearances, deals with her autobiographical play being poorly received in London, and competes on Celebrity Apprentice, eventually beating out her daughter Melissa. Interspersed is footage from Joan's past, including her ground-breaking early routines, which contained jokes about abortion and the casting couch. Also covered is Joan's ill fated decision to accept a late-night hosting spot opposite her mentor Johnny Carson, which ended with Carson cutting her off and her producer husband Edgar Rosenberg committing suicide when the show failed. In the film she defends her decision to play herself in a TV movie based on his suicide, saying it helped her and Melissa "move forward."
The film is directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who are best known for documentaries about Darfur and a wrongly-convicted African man. Reviewers say they're sympathetic to Joan, but "certainly not fawning... this is just a look at a native in her natural habitat, sequins and feathered boas included." Still, some critics complained the documentary glosses over some of Joan's uglier moments, like making fat jokes about Elizabeth Taylor and going after various female celebrities on the red carpet. But overall, it provides viewers with a better appreciation of Joan and what she did for female comics — even if she's hard to love at times — and provides insight into the "insatiable need for validation and approval that fuels so much stand-up comedy."
Below, the reviews:
The documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens with a lingering full-screen closeup of the right half of the comedian's 77-year-old face. Without makeup. Post all those surgeries and injections. Her veins are spidery, skin blotchy and pale, locks damp and plastered against her skull, upper lip seemingly immobile, eyebrow so thin you can count every hair. It's arresting - a statement of intent on the part of filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg that their picture will not just be about surfaces. Then, as Rivers begins slathering on lipstick, mascara, powder, foundation thick as paste, images of her younger self start appearing as shadows, along with voices from her past: Johnny Carson saying she's going to be "a big star," Ed Sullivan describing her as his "daffy little friend," an introduction calling her "the groundbreaking female comedian."
For those who know Rivers only from her red-carpet interviews, this doc will be a revelation. Rivers is more than a pioneering funny lady who paved the way for the likes of Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman. Her wit cuts as sharp as one of her diamonds, her observations as acute and timely as those of Jon Stewart and Sacha Baron Cohen. Rivers' renegade spirit animates this movie. There's not a timid, sympathy-begging minute in it. Even better, you leave Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work with the exhilarating feeling that the lady is just hitting her stride.
When Rivers talks about Rosenberg's death and the loss of her mentor relationship with Carson, it's obvious that the pain is still with her. Stern and Sundberg definitely fulfill the Prime Directive of every celebrity documentary, which is making a famous person — especially one the audience "knows" and has strong feelings about — seem recognizably human. Rivers can be an intelligent and even reflective person offstage, and in that sense the practiced shock-shtick of her stand-up act — wherein she calls her own daughter a "stupid fucking cunt" for refusing to pose nude in Playboy, or discusses her own fondness for anal sex ("You can do other things! You can click on e-mail! You can read a magazine!") — is just an act.
I came away from "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" feeling that, yeah, Rivers is an undeniably impressive and important phenomenon, a tenacious survivor and one of the last links to a bygone era. You could say the same thing about a living Tyrannosaurus rex, and I still wouldn't want to meet it. Rivers has prospered in comedy as a human Rorschach blot who embodies the most toxic forms of female self-loathing, an unfortunately familiar formula for successful women. She's the Maggie Thatcher of stand-up.
For all the frenzied activity, Joan Rivers is less informative dish than infomercializing cliché. It may be a revelation to see an entire wall in Rivers's fantastic Louis XIV–style apartment ("where Marie Antoinette would live if she had the money") devoted to the card catalog in which she files all of her jokes. It's less illuminating to be told, repeatedly, that a performer craves attention. (Oh, please!) Nice to know that Joan is a real person (she comes across as a warm, good-natured, unembarrassed egomaniac) but it's the character she invented and plays that makes her interesting. Unlike Mr. Warmth, John Landis's kindred portrait of Don Rickles, Joan Rivers is disappointingly stingy with shtick-so much so that you have to wonder if Rivers intuited that putting too much of her stand-up on film might be a potential threat to her bookings.
Stern and Sundberg omit one huge motif: her infamous, appalling, often hilarious Elizabeth Taylor fat-disparaging phase. She couldn't resist going after someone who'd once set a standard of beauty that Rivers could never begin to meet-and who behaved with un-Jewish childlike passivity as the pounds accumulated. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly exhilarating, thoroughly depressing portrait of the agony and ecstasy of celebrity. Watch that calendar fill up.
It's no surprise that this quintessential New Yorker makes for excellent company, though too many areas are left unexplored, from her childhood to her personal relationships. Still, if you're looking for an incisive portrait of self-generated stardom, you won't do better than this.
The film's weakness is the perspective on Rivers - it is single-focus and primarily hers. There are no detractors among the many interviewed, though with more than 40 years in the entertainment business there must be a few people besides Carson that Rivers rubbed the wrong way.
That singular focus is also a strength, with her candor as untempered as her ambition. She shows up for rehearsal for her one-woman play one day right after a cosmetic drive-by that has made her face a puffy pin-cushion, newly pumped with fillers and smoothers. Not a pretty sight. But the scene is not so much about the play as the fears that fuel her 18-hour days: that she won't look good for the show, and that some day, there won't be a show.
Demeaning doesn't belong in her vocabulary. She could not be more candid about her willingness to accept any work that pays. Part of that is fueled by economics; she's determined to remain in the lap of luxury, which includes a New York apartment that, in her words, "is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she'd had money." (I also thought I wouldn't be laughing at her jokes, many of which turn out to be fresh and terrific.) But mostly she's a creature of implacable, incurable and endlessly nourishing anger-at NBC and Johnny Carson, who befriended and then, she says, betrayed her when she produced an ill-fated talk show of her own on Fox; at critics who won't give her what she wants the most, validation as an actress; at the march of time and its ominous drumbeat. Sometimes her laughs are mirthless, and you wonder what she's thinking. What she thinks of herself, though, seems perfectly, if improbably, reasonable-a queen of comedy who won't and shouldn't abdicate.
Whatever else you want to call her - and various names spring to mind while watching the movie - she seems an unlikely fit for Ms. Stern and Ms. Sundberg, whose documentaries include "The Devil Came on Horseback," about the atrocities in Darfur, and "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," about a wrongly convicted African American prisoner. However improbable, the match-up works, partly because the filmmakers don't approach her as either an entertainment industry untouchable or one of its casualties. They're sympathetic to her, but a touch cool, and certainly not fawning, which underscores their status as entertainment industry outsiders. This is just a look at a native in her natural habitat, sequins and feathered boas included.
To their credit, the filmmakers don't try to make her look good, and while they omit some of her uglier routines, they don't (perhaps can't) ask you to love her. That's a wise move. Ms. Rivers may be a comic genius, but she's easier to admire from the distance of a movie seat and perhaps across the passage of time. An equal-opportunity offender, she has taken plenty of people down on her way up, including other women. Watching some of her nastier "Tonight Show" spots (which aren't in the movie), I find it hard to decide if her pokes at Elizabeth Taylor's weight are more painful than her self-lacerating jibes. Picking on Ms. Taylor was unspeakably mean. But Ms. Rivers's contempt for herself lasted longer: a lifetime, or so it seems.
At the core of Rivers' kibbitzy style of unvarnished truth-telling lies a deep reservoir of sadness, rooted in the suicide of her longtime manager, producer, and husband Edgar Rosenberg and the emotional scars incurred when Rivers' mentor and early champion Johnny Carson had her blacklisted from NBC after she hosted a competing, ill-fated talk show on Fox. Much of A Piece of Work inhabits the tricky intersection of comedy and tragedy: the specter of mortality looms large for Rivers, as does the even more terrifying possibility of professional irrelevance. A Piece Of Work is funny, heartbreaking, and casually profound about the insatiable need for validation and approval that fuels so much stand-up comedy.
Yet there's never a hint of self-pity; her ruthless mockingbird personality wouldn't allow it. A Piece of Work opens with extreme close-ups of Rivers' surgically enhanced, bruised-china-doll face minus its traditional coat of cosmetic varnish. It then follows Rivers as she riffs, performs, worries, complains, and preps her act with an index-card readiness that belies its Jewish-firecracker spontaneity. She's a teller of hilarious gutbucket truths as surely as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor ever were. Yet while they were consumed by their demons, Rivers is just the opposite. Letting her demons run wild is what saves her, every day.
There are some rare clips from Rivers' early '60s TV appearances with Ed Sullivan and Jack Paar, in which she pushes the envelope of just what was allowed on the tube, with references to abortion and the casting couch. The documentary oddly omits any mention of the Rivers-directed feature comedy "Rabbit Test," and we don't hear from the comedian she's most obviously influenced, Sarah Silverman (but we do get Kathy Griffin, who played her daughter on a sitcom). "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" compellingly presents a strong woman with no shortage of anger, resentment and regrets — but not an ounce of self-pity.
Stern and Sundberg include footage of Rivers in her youth, doing stand up in Wisconsin and New York, as well as on the set of 2009's Celebrity Apprentice (which she won). But they gloss over some of her most gruesome, best-known work: delivering rude, ignorant blather on the red carpet at the Academy Awards with her daughter Melissa. As a check against the seductive power of A Piece of Work, I went to YouTube looking for reminders of why I started switching the channel whenever I spotted her on Oscar night. It took three minutes to find Rivers trashing the beautiful, then 66-year- old Julie Christie's sartorial choice for the 2008 Oscar ceremony. "I think after a certain time, certain actresses should just be locked away," Rivers sniped. This from a woman who in the documentary bemoans the fact that at her Comedy Central roast, "every joke is going to be plastic surgery or old."
Rivers knows longevity is her greatest distinction, but it's not exactly her friend. She abhors aging, primarily, it seems, because it will eventually rob her of performance (unless she's lucky enough to go out in the middle of an act). A Piece of Work is too maternal and possibly too invested (Stern's parents are friends of Rivers) to delve into the incongruity between the comedian's own refusal to depart the public eye and her slaps at other entertainers like Christie. (She could counter, as she does in the movie to a heckler in the midwest, that cruelty is part and parcel of comedy, but something like the Christie comment isn't remotely funny.) But by painting a portrait of a self-aware woman desperate to stay relevant, they offer an explanation for why Rivers has sometimes chosen to debase herself and others: She was just happy to be invited. Remarkably, thanks to this documentary, we hope for the sake of this smart, vibrant, apparently good-hearted woman, that the invitations keep coming.
Joan Rivers has not been at the top of many a feminist's list because she has probably had more plastic surgery procedures than years she's been alive - 77 as of this week. But don't let your feelings about plastic surgery, or her obsession to staving off aging deter you from seeing this revelatory and substantive look into one of the hardest working women in showbiz today. The film, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work directed by Ricki Stern and co-directed by Annie Sundberg follows Joan for over a year of stand up performances, theatre openings, family events, and yes procedures on her face and you are not bored for one second. It is fascinating to see a woman work so hard in a business where women her age are scarce. And boy does she need to work hard cause she lives like a queen (she made a joke that Marie Antoinette would have lived like her if she had money), and has a huge and loyal staff to support to whom she is very generous. I never expected Joan Rivers to be the type of person who would have staff work with her for decades, but that just gives you a little insight into how different at least my perception of her was from the real Joan.