BY BEN VERDI
Daily Arts Writer
Published July 21, 2010
Melissa Rivers says it best when she claims that stand-up comedians are inherently very insecure. If you don’t already consider Melissa’s mother, a better-known comedienne named Joan, to be insecure, or at the very least odd, then this film about her life and career will enlighten you to the deepest and most tucked-away parts of a woman who for years has been famous for her all-too-revealing brand of comedy.
"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"
At the Michigan
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The documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern, details the aspects of Joan Rivers’s life that, ironically, don’t usually end up on the screen or in magazines. There is another side to this surgically-enhanced, fame-seeking and attention-craving woman, and it isn’t exactly what you’d expect.
Much like Christian Charles’s 2002 documentary about Jerry Seinfeld, “Comedian,” “Piece of Work” shows us that life as a traveling comedian — no matter how famous or successful — is no joke. While the Seinfeld documentary allowed us into the life of a man who we learn is actually much more controlling and demanding than his charming comedic performances lead us to believe, this film about a year of Joan Rivers’s life lets us see past the sassy and sexual façade of the comedienne to uncover glimpses of a broken, struggling but hopeful woman trying to salvage her career.
If this movie makes you tear up, you’re probably old enough to remember when Joan Rivers did more than reconstruct her face and ask people at the Oscars what kind of dress they were wearing. That said, to a less experienced consumer of comedy this film provides an even more startling realization than the simple revelations that her life is a mess.
As a comedienne at least, this film shows us that Joan has absolutely still “got it.”
There may be a few too many scenes where the film attempts to get us to feel sorry for Joan Rivers and the decisions she’s made, but this sympathy flows much more freely from us once we get a taste of this reality: She is really funny.
Say what you’d like about how many times she’s gotten her nose redone and her face lifted; she actually aims most of her comedic barbs at herself. She has been deeply affected by years in Hollywood and trying to make herself famous, but she is not so delusional as to look in the mirror at a broken, tattered life and deny what she sees.
In fact, her own somewhat self-inflicted ruin has seemingly provided her with something she has been using to fuel a renaissance late in her career: more material.
While it isn’t this cut-and-dry, we see very clearly that this woman, regardless of how funny we may think she is, has finally learned to laugh at herself.
In an age of athletes who leave their teams via free agency to align themselves with former competitors so that winning championships won’t be as much of a challenge; college-aged boys who acquire online followings because they knock up the daughters of former Alaskan governors; and women who become overnight sensations because they get punched in the face in bars on the Jersey Shore, it’s nice to see that Joan Rivers (of all people) still has some integrity.