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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Spend a year with the hard-workin' comedienne; being funny isn't easy



I'm not a huge Joan Rivers fan, but I'm fascinated by a performer who has so fiercely defended her career -- over decades, and in a business that is brutal even to its golden boys, and especially harsh on women. Love her or hate her, Rivers is a survivor.

Documentarians Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) filmed Rivers over one year, her 75th. She's in a low spot early on -- bookings are down, and she's more punchline than headliner. But she finishes the year strong with her surprising triumph on Celebrity Apprentice. I wish there had been more clips of that show (who can forget Rivers howling "like Hitler at Buchenwald" at her rival Annie Duke), as well as historical footage, from when Rivers was a real trailblazer.

Rivers' act is to tell jokes -- she has file cabinets of them -- but she's also funny in her daily life, so the film is almost always entertaining. Rivers has borne some tough times (her husband's suicide, money woes, her failed talk show). But while the film touches on them, they're never explored in much depth. For bigger laughs, the filmmakers show her stage performances, where Rivers is pretty blue and shameless. (The opening sequence has her ad-libbing with f-bombs about the grotty nightclub she's playing, and snapping off a quip about her grown daughter's pussy.) 

Piece of Work is admittedly hagiographic, but Rivers -- who is on camera in nearly every scene -- reveals quite a lot, and not all of it pretty. She's maniacal about working (and no job is too low); she's insecure, angry and slightly self-deluded (her real dream, even today, is to act); and her overarching commitment to plastic surgery seems sad. She's constantly vacillating between happy and sad, satisfied and anxious, confident and needy -- and must be exhausting to be around. But then, the normal people don't go into comedy. Starts Fri., July 9. Manor

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