Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

 

Recently, I had a chance to watch the Joan Rivers documentary that came out this year, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Although it did not get a wide release, it is now easily accessed through any Netflix-streaming device. I strongly recommend anyone with Netflix to check it out; it is currently listed on many year-end retrospectives as one of the best movies of the year, and with good reason.

The movie provides an intimate look at one year in the life of comedian Joan Rivers. At 75, Rivers is just as edgy and foul-mouthed as ever. The movie provides clips from her R-rated stand-up routines, as well as commentary from Rivers, and both showcase her signature voice. She doesn’t soften herself for the cameras, but nor does she seem to play some amplified version of herself. That is, we appear to get some version of the “real” Joan Rivers, even if it is just the side that emphasizes her dedication to her career.

Rivers is portrayed as a hardworking comic whose drive hasn’t slowed down with age or disappointment. As the film opens, we discover that although she is experiencing a lull in her career, she is determined to win her way back into public consciousness. The movie chronicles her attempts to do so, in the process becoming a document of the typical ups and downs of any show business career. The audience can’t help but become invested in Rivers’s struggles, and thus develop real sympathy for her.

Perhaps the genuine affection we feel for Rivers is the film’s greatest achievement. Its intimate portrait of the comedian’s triumphs, setbacks, and irrepressible work ethic ensures that we see beyond the plastic surgery for which she has recently become best known. In its place we find a genuine talent, as well as someone who is willing to put in the effort to foster her abilities. We cannot help but respect her for the way she meticulously files away every joke she has ever written, and fights for those jokes that she believes she has crafted to perfection. We recognize Rivers as someone with a great comedic history, someone who has earned, but often does not receive, the public’s admiration. It is easy to forget, since numerous surgeries have rendered her almost incapable of aging, that this is someone who has worked steadily for nearly half a century.

It is treat, especially for younger viewers, to see Rivers in her early days, when she was just starting to attain mainstream success. The film does a commendable job of chronicling her career throughout the years. It gives a taste of all the curious turns Rivers’s career has taken. Yet, of course, it cannot delve too deeply into any one aspect. For the receptive viewer, it should inspire a closer look at Joan Rivers’s impressive body of work. There is plenty more to investigate even after the movie ends. Those who only know her from her current television shows, “Fashion Police” and”Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best,” may be pleasantly surprised by her earlier works of dark comedy, like the cult movie The Girl Most Likely To, written by Rivers, and starring Stockard Channing.

Of course, even those whose interest lies only in the documentary should walk away positively swayed. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a loving look at someone who may indeed seem difficult to love. It pulls away the harsh exterior (particularly harsh in an unflinching opening shot of Rivers sans makeup), and reveals a woman who, though seemingly brash, opinionated and even offensive, is sensitive and complex at her core. She is, like all great comedians, that potent mix of vulnerability and anger, someone who  copes with the world by laughing at it. Once she is adequately demystified, we feel as though we can finally embrace her. We can pretend that we are in on the joke. Of course, it’s impossible to say if we ever reach the true Joan Rivers, if we can ever peel back all the layers, or if there will always remain more underneath. Still, we’ve peeled back that first layer, unmasked her, and beheld a truly sympathetic individual. If we can make no strong judgments on her character, we can still conclude that she is, undoubtedly, a “piece of work.”

 

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