Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Riveting doc dishes the dirt on the legendary queen of comedy

A monarch in a realm of court jesters, Joan Rivers is so iconic that her likeness could be carved into a mountainside, just so long as she could hawk mini-replicas on QVC. To many younger folks, she's best known for being bitchy about celebrities' outfits, but this film happily reminds us what a remarkable, taboo-busting pioneer she was and is, and shows that, too often, the trails she blazed were left scorched by her caustic wit and tempestuous personality. 

This "year in the life" proves worthy of its subject as an amusing, fascinating and unflinching doc that never pulls punches or steps on a punch line. 

Rivers is so embedded in the culture, a ubiquitous TV presence since the days of Jack Paar, that it's easy not to notice the extraordinary effort it takes to stay relevant. Like a shark, she has to keep moving to survive, even at the grand old age of 75.

She has no sense of security, convinced that the entertainment wolves are ever creeping toward the door. The film opens with Joan worried about a slowing career, faced with the tyranny of an empty calendar and terrified of all the white space on it. Rivers is so desperate for the spotlight — any spotlight — one gets the impression that she'd appear at the opening of a refrigerator if the money were right. Case in point: a casino gig in the icy wastes of Wisconsin, where Joan kvetches about the tacky decor, and then demolishes a heckler with such vulgarity and barely disguised rage it's startling. 

Hecklers still bother her, as does the barrage of old hag jokes she absorbs from a dais full of snot-nosed wiseasses during a Comedy Central Roast in her honor. Of course, she has made herself an easy target. Joan put the plastic in plastic surgery, wrinkles eradicated by an endless stream of pumped-in chemical caulk. Repeated procedures have left her face frozen in a permanent rictus of doll-like joviality, all the better to conceal the sharp mind at work beneath the makeup. 

For as tough and calculated as she can be, Rivers feels minor slights as major slaps; though surrounded by valets, drivers and assistants, she aches from loneliness. The film doesn't flinch from showing her — and her daughter Melissa's — still-raw emotions about the 1987 suicide of Joan's husband Edgar. In true Hollywood fashion, the first step to recovery was playing themselves in an ultra-cheesy made-for-TV movie. Melissa and her grandson are the center of her world, but Joan describes her attitude to her daughter's following her in the industry as "supportive without being enthusiastic." 

She's a bit more excited by Kennedy Center honors for her late friend George Carlin, an event that draws a murderers' row of talent, including Denis Leary, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher — talents Rivers fears she can't stack up against. Her insecurity seems so unfounded and sad, and she's still so funny, raw and raunchy that it takes only a few moments on stage to demolish her gauche image as a jewelry-shilling, red-carpet-haunting gadfly. 

As her manager quips, "I feel sorry for the next queen of comedy, because this one sure ain't abdicating." 

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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