By Scott Weinberg (reprinted from 4/25/2010 -- Tribeca Film Festival)
"Life is mean," says legendary comedienne Joan Rivers during one of the more heart-touching moments of the new documentary about a year in the gal's life, and she's more correct than she knows. Her statement was in reference to a gifted but evidently forgotten NYC photographer, who is now sickly and wheelchair-bound, but who certainly brightened up a bit when Ms. Rivers stopped by to deliver a Thanksgiving turkey. "Life is mean" meant "that woman deserved better," and I think the same could hold true for Ms. Rivers -- a true trailblazer in many ways, but these days she's mainly a "B-level" star who's better known for her plastic surgeries than her impact on the world of American comedy.
This rather fine documentary reminds us that, yep, even those "old" celebrities we don't have much use for anymore are actual people. In this case, it's a very smart person who realizes that she's well past her "fame expiration date" in many ways, but remains intent on grabbing some of the spotlight, claiming a little respect, and (at 75 years old) still trying to make people laugh. Some may worry that a documentary like this will exist as little more than a brown-nosing puff piece, and that's a fair piece of skepticism, but the truth is that Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work captures many fascinating sides of its subject -- and not all of them are flattering.
Cobbled together from a year spent in and out of Rivers' personal and professional life, A Piece of Work comes from documentary stalwarts Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whom festival-goers will no doubt remember from films like The Trials of Darryl Hunt and The Devil Came On Horseback, and it seems to be the work of two fans who were intent on delivering a "warts and all" breakdown of Ms. Rivers' activities. Only some true fans would even express interest in making this film, and only some bona fide documentarians could squeeze some refreshingly honest truth from a famous subject like Joan Rivers. As someone who grew up thinking Rivers was pretty freaking hilarious, I found the directors' approach warm yet very honest.
The film is more of a "one year in the life" sort of story, and not a complete biography of the comedienne, but there's still enough of a history lesson to bring the younger viewers up to speed. (Frankly, if all you know of Joan Rivers is red carpet interviews and QVC jewelry sales, then I feel bad for you.) And while the filmmakers do a fine job of reminding us how Joan got her big break, and what she did with it after that, I was a little bit disappointed that nobody thought to include mention of Rabbit Test, a 1978 farce that Ms. Rivers co-wrote and directed. The lady is certainly a trailblazer among female comedians, so I thought they'd want to mention that she actually directed a flick as well. (Still, a minor nitpick.)
For the old-school fans, we do get some great archival footage of Rivers on "The Tonight Show," and there's a surprisingly candid anecdote about Joan's relationship with the late Johnny Carson, which went from warm friendship to ice-cold alienation once Joan was offered her own talk show on a competing network. The woman is also refreshingly honest about her husband Edgar and his 1987 suicide, her professional concerns regarding her daughter Melissa, and the ways in which Hollywood will casually toss you aside once the wrinkles start to show.
Beyond the brief history lessons, we also get to go along for the ride as Joan deals with rejections and disappointments, but also a few happy times as well. Her one-woman show never made it out of London, but a bit later she does enjoy a raunchy Comedy Central roast in her honor -- plus she's (very deservingly) invited to participate in the Kennedy Center's tribute to the late George Carlin. But the main point found within A Piece of Work is a rather sad and sobering one: that no matter who you are, no matter how famous and admired ... time will beat you down if you don't keep yourself busy.
Rivers is refreshingly candid about being an alleged "has-been," but seems sweetly insistent that she still has a lot left to offer an audience. Based on the quick wit and strong material found throughout the whole here, I'd tend to agree.