The opening scene of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" features the then seventy-five year-old performer without any makeup. She tells us that she awakens every day and immediately applies her beauty products because, "no one wants an old woman". Joan indicates that her bodily alterations, including multiple plastic surgeries, are not simply out her own vanity but out of a desire to remain youthful. As she painfully indicates, the appearance of youth is necessary to remain relevant, or at least attempt to do so. Joan's observations on aging are among other aspects of her life that are examined in this comely documentary.
Joan is addicted to what has become her work: comedic entertainment. She did not desire this career, but no one takes her seriously as a non-comedic actress. She has accepted her role and incorporates it into her daily life in relentless pursuit of her business opportunities. As described by her staff and friends, her mania is incredible. She desires nearly every hour of every day to be occupied with stand-up performances, book signings, or even TV shows. Joan is also remarkably organized and shows us her categorization process for jokes from each performance. Regardless of what she does, Joan seems to succeed in it.
Or so we thought. No, her life isn't a silicone fairy tale. Many slots remain unfulfilled on her calendar and her personality aggravates people. Joan has a unique combination of entitlement and obsession that causes her friends and even her own daughter to become frustrated with her. Perhaps her outrageous "door-opening" comedy over the last decades was a manifestation of this. If she was going to be funny, Joan had to be sure that people would remember her. And it wasn't because she was trying to be a revolutionary. Joan simply wanted and still wants more work opportunities. After half a century undermining herself (by being unable to do what she wants), shouldn't she at least be able to do it peacefully? Apparently not. As we are reminded several times, business is cyclical and sometimes it isn't there. Other times it is. Rivers' style of comedy is polarizing to the point where people are alienated by it. We see how it has been this way for decades, especially when she was younger, and raunchy humor was unspeakable. Today, Joan is still counterintuitive to political correctness, but the world is more tolerant to her humor. Originally, the fact that she was a woman speaking such vulgarity made it funnier. Nowadays, this same business specialty still exists, and it's even funnier because she's an old woman. In her words, "I'm still opening doors." The film's placing her within her real-life working environment is all the more satisfying.
River's life and character flaws make for an interesting story. A summary of her accomplishments and ironic role as a feminist figure would have been a fine subject for a documentary. We would still enjoy that kind of film. Yet, despite everything she has done, Joan is still alive and still in your face. The filmmakers' recognition of her self-view allows them to rebuke our own pre-conceived opinions of both the woman herself and how we place her within history. As we get to know her as she now is, I can't think of a better way to document her life. In the end, A Piece of Work is as emotional and funny as its subject, this triumph results in one of the best documentaries I've seen.
***1/2 out of 4 stars