Movie Review: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”

Written by Burl on July 31st, 2010


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.

 

3 Comments so far ↓

  1. gigi-hawaii says:

    BB, somehow your review does not make me want to see the movie. haha.

    Today, I am going to see my first 3-D movie, CATS AND DOGS: REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE.

    It stars Bette Midler and Christina Applegate and uses real trained animals — much like that pig movie, BABE.

    I’d rather see a cat or dog than Joan Rivers!

  2. Mutt says:

    Jesus Christ, Burl. You came away with a far different impression than I. I’m really surprised at your review, especially after we talked about it right after screening it.

    I thought it was a sympathetic (but not overly sympathetic), thoughtful piece about a woman absolutely driven to keep entertaining. A woman who went through and succeeded during a time when it was extremely difficult for women to succeed as comedians. She comes across as a talented, compassionate, self-deprecating workaholic who’s generous to the point of paying for her employees’ children’s private schools. She’s hard on herself because she’s relentless in her pursuit of something she can never have: contentment.

    Also, she’s fucking hilarious.

    The film was well done and I recommend it to everyone.

  3. gigi-hawaii says:

    Thanks, Mutt, I still don’t want to see Joanie.

    But, Cats and Dogs wasn’t great, either! Of course, it’s meant for kids. I went because it would be the 1st time for me to see a 3D movie.

    My reaction? Well, 3D I can do without, despite David’s plan to buy a 3D TV in 2-3 years. I’d just as soon watch a 2D show on my 52 inch HDTV at home!!!

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