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MOVIE REVIEW: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

A barely passable documentary about a ground-breaking funny gal

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Rates a D+

Courtesy photo

Roger Ebert said of the new Joan Rivers documentary: “It’s the most truthful documentary about show business ever.”

Wow. He couldn’t be more wrong.

This documentary tells us little about show business.

If you want to see a better documentary that chronicles the ups and downs of the business, rent Anvil – The Story of Anvil, from last year. A heavy metal band that was big and now plays small clubs.

Where Rivers complains about a mid-week performance at an Indian casino where the room will only be half full (I’m guessing she’s still paid handsomely), Anvil flies to another country on some big promises, to

play one club that literally had three fans. The club owner decided this wasn’t enough and wouldn’t pay them. The singer has to pin the guy to the wall, who is saying “I’ll give you stew, and you can have a nice dinner.” The singer yells “I don’t want any f***ing stew, I want to be paid what we were promised.” They somehow settle on $45 or something like that.

Part of my problem with this Rivers documentary is that I had heard many of these stories before. I’m guessing if you didn’t know about how she was the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show, before leaving to get her own late night talk show that quickly flopped (and losing a friendship with Johnny Carson in the process), you’ll be interested in seeing these things.

Sometimes you can know lots of stories regarding the subject matter and still be interested. I was surprised I liked the Andy Kaufman movie with Jim Carrey so much, even though I knew most of the stories they tackled.

Rivers shows the living room of her place, and it looks like it would’ve been Liberace’s wet dream. We see a few short segments with her daughter Melissa. One involves them fighting over her continued smoking, and the other has her complaining about being fired from Celebrity Apprentice. She comes across as very spoiled. At least with her mom, we feel she’s earned it.

It was freaky seeing Rivers without make-up, but I’m not sure why she wants us to have sympathy for her plight. She complains about people making fun of her plastic surgery, but back in her day as a biting comedian, she made fun of everyone. She was relentless on Liz Taylor and her weight gain.

I was also disappointed to only see a few stars comment on Rivers. After all, she was a legendary, groundbreaking female comedian. Are Don Rickles and Kathy Griffin the only ones they can get commenting on her?

Some scenes with Rivers interacting with fans are cute, but disappointing. It’s strange that a person so witty can’t do a better job making idle conversation with fans gushing over her.

The scene involving a heckler is absolutely terrific. Rivers makes a joke about hating kids because they’re so loud and that Helen Keller would’ve been the perfect kid, because she’d sit there not making noise.

As Rivers makes a weird facial expression, a man in the audience yells, “That’s not funny.” Rivers replies, “Oh yes it is.” The guy mentions having a deaf kid and for parents of deaf children that’s not funny.

She then lays into this guy about how it’s comedy, and it’s just a joke, and if he can’t take it he should leave (which he does).

Rivers reveals that she has a deaf mother, which I’m guessing is true. She also mentioned dating a guy with one leg, that really isn’t relevant to anything, but funny nonetheless. When people get mad and start screaming, often times the things out of their mouth don’t make sense but are amusing.

It’s also interesting how a fan gets her autograph after that show and says how stupid the guy was to yell out. Rivers has now had time to think about it and says it wasn’t, and the guy had a point and has a deaf kid and how it was probably cathartic for him to say what he did.

There was an interesting working relationship Rivers had with a long-time friend that she finally fires for being flakey and not showing up. She cries as she talks about him being the only one she could ever talk about the early days with, because he was with her through the birth of her daughter, the suicide of her husband and so much more.

It’s strange that Rivers rants and rants about not wanting to see her calendar bare with no dates to perform, and it never is.

She does a conference call where she tells an agency she’ll do any commercial for any company, even if that means wearing diapers, or having her teeth knocked out so she can endorse a denture cream. You almost believe she would, and it comes off as pathetic.

And just as you start to feel a tad bit of sympathy for the state of her career, you hear a phone call come in that’s offering her $125,000 to do a 3-day cruise. She takes it, telling her agent, “Tell them if they bump up the offer, I’ll also perform.”

I immediately thought – what?! They were going to pay her that much and she wasn’t going to have to perform?!

I then thought about how she has multiple personal assistants, a couple that runs her house…cooks, cleans, and other errands. And I wondered what it was I was having sympathy for. What percentage of Americans even make $125,000 a year, the amount she was going to get for three days of “work.”

Rivers does a Comedy Central roast, but admits she’s doing it only for the money. We find out she also hates the comedians talking about her age and plastic surgery.

Rivers also takes negative reviews poorly. She writes a play that does well in Scotland, but not in London. Watching her assistant read reviews to her in the back of a limo is painful, even with the woman trying to make them sound better than they are.

Rivers is in tears as she tells her she won’t take it to New York because she can’t deal with such harsh reviews from those critics.

There’s an interesting scene where we see a library style cataloging system with all her jokes, and there must be a million written on index cards. She pulls out a few to read, and they’re great.

We see the expected clips of her on Carson, Ed Sullivan, and Jack Paar, but we’ve seen those clips before.

We don’t see any of her social life, and lots of other things that might’ve made this more interesting and complete.

I think this could’ve been edited down to an hour, and worked nicely as a TV special (with the subject matter and language, probably on HBO).

Rivers never reveals the face behind the mask (so to speak), but instead, it’s a mask behind the mask.

I’m a huge fan of her comedy, but not this movie. I’m giving it a D+.