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Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2008)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2008)

Directed by: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Premise: A documentary of entertainer of Joan Rivers, recounting her life and examining her career in the seventy-fifth year of Rivers’ life.

What Works: A documentary about Joan Rivers may sound like a vanity project—and in some respects it is—but the film busts out of the predictable template of a celebrity life story to become a multi-layered examination of an entertainer and a meditation on getting old. The film follows Rivers across the country at various events from stand up shows to commercial tapings to paid appearances while cross cutting with a retrospective on Rivers’ career, connecting where she came from to where she is now. Rivers’ wit gives the film a lot of laughs, but the documentary’s examination of her personal and professional life is fairly somber, juxtaposing the laughs with sadness and isolation. Artists and entertainers tend to be insecure creatures, and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work gets at that anxiousness as Rivers struggles to launch projects, book events, and maintain her status as a relevant voice in American comedy. That pursuit of currency, both cultural and monetary, lead to some less than dignified moments for Rivers and the film creates a degree of uneasiness in those moments when Rivers allows herself to be exploited or even humiliated in the pursuit and maintenance of her fame. It is an interesting but sad examination of the cost of fame and a criticism of Hollywood’s treatment of its own performers. While examining her career, the film shows how Rivers opened doors for contemporary female comedians like Chelsea Handler and Kathy Griffin. The film also suggests that Rivers deserves to be recognized and ranked amid other comedians of her generation such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor in the way she challenged prudish attitudes and created new parameters for the content and form of standup comedy.

What Doesn’t: If there is any flaw in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it is that the film never asks whether all of Rivers’ indignities are worth it. The documentary displays the practical reasons for Rivers’ frantic schedule, namely her expensive lifestyle, but upon revealing that that not all that glitters is gold, it does not take the next step and ask if this lifestyle is worth the effort and indignities she suffers to maintain it.  

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, question and answer session, trailer and TV spots.

Bottom Line: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a very good documentary on the nature of celebrity and the pursuit of fame as well as a fascinating portrait of a woman who is much smarter and self-aware than her public image would suggest.

Episode: #321 (January 9, 2011)