Gad, what a needy woman. Joan Rivers’ idea of a nightmare is a blank page in her datebook. This new documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” follows the comedienne around for a year, and she has plenty on her plate, generally three appearances or projects a day. Does she sleep? And when she does, does she dream about not meeting goals for herself?
It’s all self-inflicted, so we don’t feel too sorry for her. The fallout is that she’s rich and surrounded by supportive people. On the other hand, she’s also desperate for money, deserved or not; and her supportive people basically burn out. Even her long-time manager, Billy Sammeth, during the course of the film, disappears, which calls for Rivers to weep lonesomely and then fire him. (Sammeth recently sued Rivers over his portrayal in the film, although Rivers had no control over how the film was edited. In show biz, keep your friends close, your legal advisor closer.)
Rivers is in her 70s, following a schedule that would kill people half her age. Much is made of her extensive plastic surgery, which by now resembles a kabuki mask melting in place like that guy in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
There’s relatively little related about her early years, fixating mostly on her needy relationship with Johnny Carson, a subject that provides a tipping point in a play she wrote about — of course — about herself, “Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress,” the tryouts for which consume a third of the film. The play meets middling success in England, but because there are no raves, Rivers abandons the project instead of bringing it to the U.S. She talks endlessly about her need for approval as an actress. The comedy, she claims, is just a side gig until she can make it as a thespian. What are we to make of that? What drives her to desire what she hasn’t got?
The filmmakers keep a cool distance, as if they’re stalking wild game. Joan Rivers is no slacker. She’s pointy, obtuse, crude, daring, fragile, angry, a case study of an overachiever in a business that celebrates mediocrity and cruelty to yesterday’s headliners. She’s mean to, but meaner to herself.
Joan Rivers is a master at making you laugh, sometimes in surprise, sometimes in wonderment, mostly in shock at self-revelation. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” may be the most entertaining slow-motion train wreck ever filmed.