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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Joan Agonistes."
4 stars

Joan Rivers is not a happy woman, from the evidence in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." She is driven almost demonically driven insecure, filled with anger. In other words, she's a comedian.

Comedians are like rock stars in a lot of ways, but particularly in regards to longevity. Some burn out early (Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, Bill Hicks). And some hang in there well into their seventies, eighties, nineties. Joan Rivers turned 75 during the filming of this documentary. As I write this, she is 77. Jerry Lee Lewis is 75. I think Rivers might have more to talk about with Jerry Lee Lewis than with Jerry Lewis, who is 84, and who once infamously said that women aren't funny. Anyway, why focus on age? Partly because Rivers herself can't escape it. She hears, as one associate puts it, the ticking of the clock. She has five decades in show business, and she vehemently refuses to slow down or retire. She practically defines herself by how many dates are filled in on her gig schedule.

Rivers holds grudges and holds onto past traumas. She co-wrote and appeared in a play, Fun City, in 1972, and it got poisonous reviews on Broadway and closed in six days. So when she prepares her new stage show, Joan Rivers: A Work In Progress By A Life In Progress, she opens it in London. If it doesn't fly there, she will refuse to take it to New York. It gets lukewarm reviews. She kills it. She can't bear to go through a Fun City experience all over again. Roger Ebert wrote that Rivers "doesn't know fear." I think that's true onstage; I think that's the only place she doesn't know fear. Offstage she knows it all too well.

Several times in the documentary, we hear Rivers announcing that she will do anything. Anything. Any demeaning commercial, any flyover hicksville gig. She did not voice the vagina character Vajoana (which looked and sounded like her) on the Comedy Central cartoon Drawn Together, but perhaps only because she wasn't asked to. "I've been a cunt all my life," she might have said; "I might as well play one."

Searching for a suspenseful narrative arc after Rivers torpedoes her own play, the film latches onto Rivers' appearance on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice along with her daughter Melissa. Melissa got "fired" off the show and left amid much acrimony. Incensed, Rivers stayed on and ended up winning the competition. She sees this as a triumph, a life-saver, a way to stay in the game. From what I can tell, it doesn't seem to have affected her career one way or the other. People will still want her for what she can do, or they won't. Melissa, in the film, seems to be developing the same scowling mask as her mother. Neither of them seems happy, flitting from gig to gig, Joan badgering Melissa about her smoking and Melissa countering that she's cut down.

They both, I presume, live in the shadow of Melissa's father and Joan's husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who married Joan in 1965 and took his own life twenty-two years later. This came on the heels of the failure of Rivers' The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, from which she was fired after several months, and which went on without her for about another year. Three months later, Edgar was dead; and the very fact of Rivers doing a talk show on a rival network cost her her relationship with her mentor, Johnny Carson, who never spoke to her again, and who, Rivers insinuates, made it impossible for Rivers to get any work on NBC until Celebrity Apprentice in 2009. Since Carson left The Tonight Show in 1992 and died in 2005, this seems unlikely, but what do I know?

This is a woman who's taken any number of private and public punches and keeps on going. The portrait here is neither flattering nor unsympathetic. The structure and style reminded me a little of Kathy Griffin's "My Life on the D List" -- it feels like an 83-minute pilot for a Joan Rivers reality show, in which Joan, like Kathy, roves around endlessly looking for work, which really amounts to looking for love and reinforcement.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20049&reviewer=416
originally posted: 12/27/10 14:12:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2010 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2010 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Provincetown International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/05/12 Melissa Rivers Joan Rivers is a pathetic old woman, but ya gotta admire her just the same. 4 stars
3/21/11 Guido Sanchez Amazing documentary and insight, and also funny and fairly eye opening to me 4 stars
1/22/11 RLan A great documentary about the ups and downs of a comedian. 4 stars
1/20/11 Martin Very Interesting and Entertaining. Wish more info on her early years for the uninformed! 4 stars
12/22/10 the dork knight If you doubt River's talent, this movie includes clips of Kathy Griffin. That'll learn ya. 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  11-Jun-2010 (R)
  DVD: 14-Dec-2010

UK
  N/A

Australia
  11-Jun-2010


Directed by
  Ricki Stern
  Annie Sundberg

Written by
  (documentary)

Cast
  (documentary)



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