Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (subtitled “A Year in the Life of a Semi-Legend”) opens with its subject being seen in close-up sections of her unmade-up face in all its imperfections as it’s transformed into the mask the public—and perhaps Rivers herself—sees and recognizes. We then see Rivers performing at a dive in Queens where she comes out telling the audience, “This is my career. I mean, how depressing is this? Forty years in the f**king business and this is where you end up.” There’s bitterness, anger and humor, but no sense of her courting sympathy—and no hint that at 74, Rivers has any plans to tone it down. That becomes abundantly obvious as the outspoken and raunchy routine progresses. What is also obvious is that Rivers doesn’t sell her audience short. You see the same energy in this crummy small club that you do when she is in front of thousands.
These scenes pretty much set the tone for the documentary, which is more or less done in basic documentary style. The film doesn’t set out to dazzle and it doesn’t set out to offer startling revelations about its subject. Some reviewers seem upset by the latter—as if nothing less than tabloid trash would suit a woman who is no stranger to the underbelly of tabloid reportage. I disagree. I found the film’s nonexploitative look at Rivers to be entertaining, thought provoking, slightly touching and irreverently funny. Of course, it’s funny because Rivers herself is funny—something that keeps being forgotten amidst all the plastic-surgery cracks, public battles, and her slide from mainline comedian to hard-to-book “has-been.”
What is most compelling about the film lies in the whole “has-been” concept, which is closely related to the current mania for dismissing anyone and anything that isn’t the newest thing around as not being “relevant.” Besides being demeaning and demoralizing, the term also fails to take into account how cyclical the mood of the moment is that makes someone or something relevant. What is irrelevant today may be relevant all over again a few years down the road. This film demonstrates this dynamic on a small scale.
It’s interesting that reviews that crop up in the film of some of Rivers’ work refer to her capacity for self-pity. I saw very little of that in her performances, except as fuel for bitter comedy. Rivers’ whole shtick is grounded in taking the bad breaks life deals and turning them into irreverent—and often angry—comedy. She might like you to feel outraged for her, but not sorry for her, despite the fact that there might be much about which you could. Rivers is an obvious workaholic and someone who goes into a panic if she isn’t working. She’ll take just about any job—even if she disapproves of it on some level, as when she agrees to appear at a tribute to George Carlin. She deems the whole event hypocritical, because the audience gathered to honor Carlin posthumously will be full of “older, very wealthy Republicans—all the things that George fought against.”
Joan Rivers doesn’t focus on unmasking its subject—it dispenses with that at the beginning. Rather it attempts to show you how the mask is created and from what. Yes, there are moments of pathos and glimpses into the sadness of Rivers’ life, but they’re all but obliterated by the comedy. And the film very wisely gives the viewer generous servings of Rivers’ routines—irreverent, outrageous routines that make you wonder how anyone who is so “irrelevant” could be this funny? They may just make you rethink the whole idea of what is and isn’t relevant. Rated R for language and sexual humor.