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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

January 10th, 2011
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Before I finalize my Best of 2010 lists (which will be coming in a few weeks), I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the movies/TV shows/comics/etc. that I’d missed during the past very busy twelve months.  One of the films that I was bummed to have never gotten to was the recent documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.  I was able to watch the film on DVD, and it is fantastic.  (I have a feeling this might have just bumped another film off of my Best Movies of 2010 list!  We’ll see…)

Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, the film follows a year in the life of the 77 year-old working comedian.  For so many people these days, Joan Rivers is basically a joke — a nasty woman criticizing people on the red carpet line while herself looking pretty hideously plastic as a result of inordinate amounts of plastic surgery.  Being a big comedy fan — and, in particular, stand-up comedy — I’m actually fairly familiar with her early work, when she was a pretty sharp, hysterical comic.  But I still had the same perception of her, these days, as most.  I had respect for the comedian she’d been, but that only made it more painful these days to see her hocking gawdy items on QVC.

But after watching Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it’s clear that I didn’t know Joan Rivers at all.  The film does an incredible job at humanizing Ms. Rivers.  Not by glossing over her faults — no, the film pulls no punches when it comes to moments when she doesn’t appear in the best of light.  But in many respects this warts-and-all presentation of Joan Rivers forces audiences to look at her and her work in a new light, and to reconsider our caricaturish perceptions of her.

Most importantly, the film emphasizes what a vibrant, FUNNY comic she still is.  The film contains some terrific clips from her glory-days on the stand-up circuit and, of course, some of her appearances on The Tonight Show, but it also contains generous clips from many of Ms. Rivers’ current stand-up gigs, and she is a RIOT.  Crude, unflinching, and hysterical.  (After the film was over, my wife Steph and I turned to each other and said, “boy, it’d be fun to go see her perform live!”)  I was totally unprepared to laugh at any Joan Rivers material post 1980.

The year chronicled by the film (2008-09) was a fascinating year for Ms. Rivers, containing many low points (her disappointment at the criticisms leveled at her play after performances in London; her decision to part company with her long-time manager) and high points (winning Celebrity Apprentice and the media attention that followed).  This isn’t a depressing portrait of a forgotten former star, nor is it a glossy EPK look at a famous figure.  Rather, the film is an unblinking look at a tough, long year in the life of a tenacious, working comedian.  Who just happens to be a 77 year-old woman.

It is ASTONISHING to see how hard this woman works.  It’s clear throughout the film that Joan Rivers has incredible drive.  Many of her associates comment on how she feels the need to constantly be working, and she herself freely admits that on several occasions.  There’s a montage late in the film that illustrates her punishing schedule over a one-week period, and it is just BRUTAL.  In part this is sad, because as Ms. Rivers explains at one point, she’s had a series of frustrating, lean years since her falling-out with Johnny Carson in the 80’s and her subsequent black-listing from NBC, and she feels the need to keep working, working, working, because she never knows when the opportunities will dry up for good.  There’s a point early in the film where we see her working with her assistant and manager to set her schedule, and we see Ms. Rivers fretting over the many empty blocks in her weekly planning book.  That fear held by most artists — Will they still love me tomorrow?  Will anyone still hire me tomorrow? — is palpable and affecting.  Of course, one could argue that Ms. Rivers has brought some of this upon herself — that her refusal to EVER turn ANYTHING down led to her overexposure (how can one take an actor or comedian seriously who takes some of the Z-level gigs that she does?) might have contributed to her loss of the more big-time opportunities.

But whatever the cause — and, again, the film does not shy away from showing some of Ms. Rivers’ weaker moments or presenting her flaws — I found it impossible to watch the film without gaining a newfound respect for her work ethic and her tenacity.  The woman is 77 years old!!!  (Have I mentioned that?)  And she bounces across the country (and the globe!) and from job to job like a woman in her 20’s.  It’s really quite phenomenal.  And she’s still a live-wire.  She’s opinionated — there’s a great moment backstage at the tribute for George Carlin in which she gives brief one-or-two-word assessments of the other performers, some of which are not complimentary.  She’s tough — one of my favorite scenes in the film is when she tears into a heckler at a performance.  It’s harsh — perhaps too harsh — but, on the other hand, he WAS yelling at her from the audience!  One might have expected this older woman, who’s clearly aching for greater popularity and relevance, to shy away from confrontation, but not Joan Rivers.  She hollers right back at the dude, and good for her!  It’s a great, potent moment.

The film is tightly edited and moves along at a very brisk pace.  It’s funny, it’s somber, and most of all it’s engaging.  I can only imagine how much footage Ms. Stern & Ms. Sundberg must have had to cull through after following Joan Rivers with their cameras for a year, but they did a terrific job at shaping a taut documentary that, in less than two hours, not only presents a detailed depiction of a year in the life of this working comedian, but more importantly paints a fully-realized, three-dimensional picture of this famous woman.  You might not think you like Joan Rivers — and maybe, after seeing this film, you still won’t think much of her (though my opinions changed) — but either way, this is a fascinating portrait of a comedian and a compelling film.

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