Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work Reviews
Nate's Grade: B
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither..." an unforgettable slice of human life, in all its terrible glory, no matter how you slice it.
Rivers' talent is still formidable, but so are her psychological problems. She's just one step away from being as crazy as Michael Jackson. The mania for cosmetic surgery is only the most visible sign. When she talks about "success," which she is fixated on, she sounds like a heroin addict. Sadly, it appears that her daughter has caught the same bug. Watching the two of them interact is downright scary. I suspect that the daughter has begun having plastic surgery, too. Yikes.
At the age of 75, Rivers is forcefully trying to turn back the clock and not go gently into that good night by performing as much standup as humanly possible which is hard enough when the drunks in the audience think they are funnier than you are and worse if you happen to be wearing a dress.(Just ask Eddie Izzard.) Whereas Rivers can expertly handle any heckler, she is remarkably thin-skinned when it comes to critics reviewing her plays which goes to every comedian wanting to be taken seriously. While part of her drive comes from not wanting to retire, some of it is fear of another kind of death, that of being forgotten.
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
This year-in-the-life window in Joan Rivers' life is an interesting navigation of show biz insight (and savvy), the nature of staying relevant, and in seeing the fight, wisdom and insecurities of a spunky woman who has bucked convention with still-shocking humor for so many years. We follow Rivers on the expected, yet still meaningful, highs-and-lows, such as her winning Celebrity Apprentice, but also having to dismiss a longtime friend and manager (who is over-introduced to set up this story arc anyway). In short, this is not the Joan Rivers most of us perceive in the regular media these days. Her passion is tangible, but so are her failings. That she wears on her face, lathered in makeup along with that unholy mask she uses to squeeze out human expression. The movie is funny, interesting, realistic, and at times meaningful: basically, a lot of adjectives that you wouldn't ordinarily associate with Joan Rivers. It is indeed quite the piece of work.
Here's a woman who is terrified of the empty white pages of her calendar, who delivers food to home-bound people with life-threatening illnesses with her grandson in tow to teach him good values, who mourns the loss of a friend, because they were one of the few connections she had left who could remember the good old days with her.
Although the film doesn't shy away from the fact that she's richer than God, it doesn't keep us from caring about her - warts and all. A lovely, beautifully-made, laugh-out-loud funny film.