Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Movie review: 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' fails to explain comedian's quirks

"Piece of Work" doesn't fully explore Joan Rivers's almost pathological work ethic. (Seth Keal/ifc Films)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

There's a shot of filing cabinets in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," a documentary about the groundbreaking comedian. It's where Rivers organizes her jokes: alphabetically, and by subject matter. One drawer is labeled "Pets," and then, as if by afterthought, "Politically Incorrect."

You might wonder, after watching the film, why she even bothers with the second category.

There are no jokes about pets in the movie, which begins with the celebration of Rivers's 75th birthday in 2008 and follows her over the course of a year, looking back at her career. There are, however, plenty of politically incorrect ones. A particularly egregious one, which makes fun of first lady Michelle Obama's reputation for glamour by referring to her as "Blackie O," is shot down by a chorus of groans from members of Rivers's inner circle, which includes two assistants, a manager, an agent and numerous other staffers.

Both the filing cabinets and the sprawling staff lend justification to the film's title, with plays on the comic's propensity for outrageousness along with her formidable work ethic. "She's an industry," says one of her employees, noting Rivers's line of jewelry, books, stand-up dates and TV appearances, including a winning stint on "Celebrity Apprentice." She is also shown working, during the course of the film, on a one-woman play, "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress."

"Joan will turn nothing down," says her assistant Jocelyn Pickett.

That almost pathological compulsion to work, and its psychological roots, are explored with only a moderate degree of success by filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose work includes documentaries about genocide in Darfur and a man wrongly convicted of murder. (The filmmakers got access to Rivers because she is a friend of Stern's mother.)

At one point, Rivers shows the camera a blank page in her appointment book, saying, "I'll show you fear." But what exactly is she so afraid of? Perhaps the loss of love that being out of the limelight would represent. Rivers has long joked about maternal rejection. And in the end, all comics are damaged, as Rivers's daughter, Melissa, observes.

But Rivers herself never faces the question head-on, except to quip that "nobody wants me." That fear of rejection might explain her much publicized cosmetic surgery.

"Right now [people] see her as a plastic surgery freak who's past due," says her longtime manager, Billy Sammeth.

That surgery has left the comedian a few steps shy of Michael Jackson in terms of how different she looks from her former self. But she's not apologetic. "You think a man wants an intelligent woman?" Rivers asks Johnny Carson in an old "Tonight Show" clip. "I never had one put his hand up my skirt looking for a library card."

Rivers, a Barnard College graduate, is obviously intelligent. And her pioneering work made possible the careers of such female comedians as Kathy Griffin, seen in the film saying as much. But the insecurities that seem to feed Rivers's often angry humor -- and that have left her face looking like a mask frozen in horror -- are left unexamined.

** R. At Landmark's Bethesda Row Cinema and Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains lots of crude humor and dirty language. 84 minutes.

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