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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern | Anne Sundberg, 2010)


     Joan Rivers has been a fixture of the entertainment industry for something like forty years, so the prospect of a documentary with her as its subject is less than immediately compelling. Rivers, thanks to her constant presence in tabloid media and her confessional, confrontational style of stand-up comedy, has had her life laid bare for us repeatedly already, so one approaches Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work wondering if it could possibly offer an audience fresh insight about a figure whom we all already seem to know. The answer is a pleasant surprise. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s film offers not the trite portrait of an underdog that so many previous entertainment documentaries would have led us to expect, but instead delivers a more nuanced observation that careers in show business have near-uncontrollable peaks and valleys that take a psychic toll on even the most hardened of performers. Presenting Rivers as an almost possessed workaholic, A Piece of Work doesn’t beg for sympathy (even as it shows a more vulnerable Joan than we might be used to seeing), but instead suggests that her persistence as a celebrity mostly can be attributed to her own unrelenting tenacity.


     Shot over fourteen months, the documentary seems to offer viewers an all-access look into Rivers’ personal and private lives. Stern and Sundberg, who are best known for their excellent Darfur documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, treat Rivers with obvious respect, but still burrow directly into her obsessions with work, aging, and the past. The opening moments of the film, in which we are shown makeup being lacquered onto Rivers’ surgically altered face, set the tone effectively, as they acknowledge tension between Joan the woman and Joan the performer that will power the rest of the movie. A word of self-pity would never slip from Joan Rivers’ profane mouth, and the film follows suit, depicting her tendency for career immolation (most specifically in her dealings with NBC) and her repeated returns from the ashes with the same soberness. Even the feel-good element that emerges as the film wraps to a close, is wizened by the knowledge that Rivers career will almost inevitably slump again. What ultimately results, then, is a film that is limited largely by its own choice of subject matter. A Piece of Work does a solid job of deepening our understanding of Rivers, but its accomplishments pretty much end there.



Jeremy Heilman