She is crude, she is loud and she is obnoxious. Her name is Joan Rivers, and whether you like her or not (I do!) and whether she is willing to embrace it or not (she's not!) she is a comedic icon. A joke or a laugh riot, whatever the case may be, all of this is, of course, well known by anyone who has owned a television sometime during the past 45 years or so. Nothing new there. However, what we get in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (a double entendre title if ever I heard one!) is a different side of the so-called (and self-called!) queen of comedy. We see the vulnerable side, the insecure side, the real side. We get the laughs, sure, but we also get the pain that has accompanied this lifelong pursuit of wanting to be accepted. It may seem a bit obvious, a bit cliché, to say this - after all, I am sure this is what the directors (Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg) were going for (and in a way, what Joan herself was going for) - but nonetheless this is what we get. Yet, like in many other so-called soul-searching docs, where the filmmakers and/or subject want to seem more sensitive than their usual harder image, in A Piece of Work, the persona that is Joan Rivers comes off as a real human being with real human emotions - as well as a bawdy good humour to boot.
Though also looking back on the comedienne's long career (edging toward half a century since her successful debut on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and its inevitable highs and lows, the filmmaker's focus mainly on a year in the life of the seventy-five year old Rivers (she is seventy-seven now as the movie was filmed two years ago and just brought to audiences now). We get to see Rivers' stage act (full of hilarious vulgarities - saying how much she likes anal sex because you can do other things during, all the while mimicking the act on stage - and over-the-edge controversy - she asks her staff if when comparing Michelle Obama to Jackie Kennedy, making sure to say how much she likes and respects the first lady, would it be alright to call her Blackie-O) interspersed with an almost reality show type atmosphere throughout. We get to watch as Joan makes mince meat out of a heckler then turns around and actually feels sympathy for him. We watch as Joan talks about the betrayal of longtime friend Johnny Carson who turned his back on the comedienne and reputedly had her blacklisted from NBC. We watch as Joan describes the abandonment by her manager and closest friend. We watch as Joan describes the loss of her husband to suicide. We watch as Joan relives her past life and gets ready for, as she puts it, the long long long life and career ahead of her. [08/06/10]