Because the media has made a punchline of Joan Rivers and because Joan Rivers has made a punchline of herself, I often find myself predisposed to disliking Joan Rivers. That means that I'm constantly having to reevaluate that predisposition, being reminded that before she was the poster-woman for bad plastic surgery and the brunt of easy jokes tinged with hints of age-ism and sexism, Joan Rivers paved the road for nearly every successful female comic of the past 40 years.
I had to do that kind of reevaluation when Rivers was one of the iconic names paying tribute to George Carlin when he posthumously received the Mark Twain Prize. I had to do that kind of reevaluation when Rivers did a Television Critics Association press tour panel and delivered 30 minutes of off-the-cuff zingers. And there was still more reevaluation that came from watching "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which is playing in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the Sundance Film Festival.
Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is a surprisingly sympathetic, and unsurprisingly funny, portrait of a woman who needs no introduction but, as I keep being reminded, often requires re-introduction.
[More on "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" after the break...]
I've got at least three different meanings to the subtitle of Stern and Sunberg's doc, not that they're difficult to pick out. You have Joan Rivers' life-long audacity and eccentricity, which make her a piece of work. You have the years of many-layered plastic surgeries and other augmentations that make it an understatement to say that Joan Rivers has had work done. And then there's the side of Joan Rivers that we're introduced to in the documentary, a compulsive workaholic who experiences visible discomfort when the pages of her daily planner aren't filled from dawn to dusk (or later, really) with engagements, gigs and even the most menial of labors. That Joan Rivers has seen the way her comedic heroes, people like Don Rickles, George Burns and Phyllis Diller remained masters of the stage into their 80s, 90s and beyond and, at 75, hopes to do the same herself.
Stern and Sundberg were given extensive access to Joan Rivers over the course of a key year in Rivers' life and career. It's a year that started off with blank pages on her booking calendar, but would eventually include a one-woman show that played in Edinburgh and London, the aforementioned Carlin tribute, a successful run on NBC's "The Celebrity Apprentice" and a Comedy Central Roast.
"A Piece of Work" is about that year in Rivers' life, but it uses the year as a frame for more conventional biopic elements, which are integrated in a way that doesn't require the year-by-year chronology that something like "Bhutto" undertakes. We see Rivers' frustrations at what she sees as myriad attacks or slights on her reputation, which make for natural segues into her early standup appearances, her relationship with Johnny Carson, her short-lived FOX late-night show, etc. [In the context of the current disaster of NBC late-night and the much-speculated-upon possibility of FOX returning to late-night, Rivers' power and prominence in that milieu in decades past only elevates her stature further.]
But Rivers is concerned that she's become an afterthought, that she's been supplanted (usurped? [copied into irrelevance?]) by Kathy Griffin (used as both a punchline and a talking head here) and other comics who refer to her contributions in the past tense. Rivers wants to make it clear that there's more to her than the past, but she's not beyond dwelling on that past, still harboring the bumps and bruises from perceived past mistreatment at the hands of critics. She's especially sore about her reception the last time she did theater in New York and there's something heartbreaking about the way she pulls back from her play after a rapturous reception in Scotland and some tepid reviews in London. She just doesn't want to be hurt again.
And she's been hurt in so many different ways, whether by Carson, who never spoke to her again after she left for FOX, or by her husband, who committed suicide soon after the FOX late-night debacle. In the doc, she's also having problems with her long-time manager, one of the longest-standing pieces of her showbiz team. Throw in the subpar bookings and a stated willingness not to turn down a single commercial or product-endorsing opportunity and you'd think Rivers was a sad woman.
She's also probably a brilliant woman. In her embarrassingly opulent New York City apartment -- "This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money," Rivers cracks -- she has a card catalogue-style wall of drawers and index cards including every joke she's ever written. She's constantly developing new material and when she takes her ever-evolving stand-up act to small clubs and values, she still absolutely kills.
As the film progresses, you start to want Rivers to succeed, which is a level beyond simply not being annoyed by her or not being disturbed by the tininess of her nose and the tautness of her cheeks and forehead. You see how much her latest comeback means to her and how hard she's working towards it and darned if it doesn't feel like Joan Rivers deserves a break. That's a sign of good filmmaking as well, because there's no inherent reason why I should care about the reviews for Joan Rivers' play, but Stern and Sundberg and Rivers, through the openness and honesty of their interactions, make you care. They make you care when Rivers goes on stage at a Wisconsin casino and experiences a heckler. You want Rivers to take the heckler down, or at least to win the audience back. And even if you know the results of the last season of "The Celebrity Apprentice," you want Joan to take down that evil Annie Duke, to get payback for what she did to daughter Melissa.
Sundberg and Stern, whose previous docs include "The Trials of Darryl Hunt" and "The Devil Came on Horseback," have a pretty good sense of exactly how much tolerance viewers will have for Rivers. "Piece of Work" is only 85 minutes and needn't be longer. Rivers also knows her own limitations and she's able to use humor to smooth out any situation where she runs the risk of becoming too maudlin or sincere.
At Sundance, you see plenty of documentaries about genocide, about war, about hot-button political issues. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of World" doesn't have much depth, but it knows its subject matter and tells its story simply and appealingly. That isn't an easy thing to pull off.