Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Reviewed by Tim Grierson
Inspiring, sobering and very funny, the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” intriguingly showcases the iconic comedienne over the course of a year as she struggles to stay relevant and employed at age 76. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (who previously collaborated on the documentaries “The Devil Came on Horseback” and “The Trials of Darryl Hunt”) are neither fawning nor snide in their treatment of the outspoken comic, and in turn she provides a portrait of the challenges facing an older woman in a highly competitive and youth-obsessed industry.
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” follows Rivers as she plots her latest career moves. Chronicling roughly a 12-month span between 2008 and 2009, the documentary charts her adventures on “Celebrity Apprentice” (which featured her daughter Melissa as a fellow contestant), at standup appearances, during her Comedy Central roast, and while trying to mount an autobiographical theater piece in Edinburgh and London.
The film shuffles between her work and her personal life, offering extensive interviews with Rivers as well as conversations with her assistant, manager and daughter. “A Piece of Work” provides a thumbnail overview of her career, including mentions of her falling-out with Johnny Carson and her extensive plastic surgery, but the documentary is largely interested in presenting Rivers in the current moment as she actively worries about how to keep her brand name flourishing at an age when many entertainers are being put out to pasture.
Because their previous films have dealt with weighty subjects such as racism and genocide, it might seem odd that Stern and Sundberg have chosen to make a documentary about Rivers, who despite being a groundbreaking female comic can rightly be accused in her later years of shamelessly seeking publicity in any way that she could. But perhaps it’s precisely because of the filmmakers’ reputation for serious themes that “A Piece of Work” emerges as a thoughtful look at ambition and the nature of fame rather than a simplistic puff piece about a notorious celebrity.
In fact, the film could almost be a companion piece to the very fine 2002 documentary “Comedian,” which followed Jerry Seinfeld as he tried to develop new standup material after ending his popular NBC sitcom. In both films, the mysterious inner workings of a comic’s mind become rich dramatic material that forms the framework for everything we see. Rather than spending much time on trying to explain why Rivers is funny, “A Piece of Work” is much more concerned with examining how a comic’s personal obsessions help feed her art.
Indeed, what comes across most forcefully in “A Piece of Work” is Rivers’ complete dedication to her career. Considering that she’s been famous for almost 50 years, that commitment might not be much of a surprise, but “A Piece of Work” reveals an intelligent woman who’s very honest and realistic about her diminished place in the current entertainment firmament. Those coming to the film hoping for simple campy pleasures will be disappointed to learn that the Rivers portrayed in the documentary is not a shrill diva but, rather, a focused businesswoman whose insatiable need to keep working is due to two factors: a luxurious lifestyle she doesn’t want to lose; and an inability to find much happiness outside of her career. Again, these revelations are not entirely novel in the world of performers, particularly comics, but “A Piece of Work” demonstrates the drive, courage and neuroses required for this septuagenarian to stay in the game.
This is not to suggest that the documentary is just a cerebral psychological study. Rivers seems comfortable around the filmmakers’ cameras without worrying about playing to them, and this allows the audience to watch her be really funny (sometimes in shockingly abrasive ways) throughout the movie’s short 84-minute running time. As clips from her early routines illustrate, Rivers made her name initially as a comedienne who talked frankly about the troubles of being a married woman in America’s patriarchal society, and while some of those bits have not aged well, her willingness to give voice to taboo topics remains one of the sharpest weapons in her arsenal. But at the same time, Stern and Sundberg illustrate what a divisive figure she is. As “A Piece of Work” makes clear, Rivers at 76 is more of a calculated provocateur than an incisive social critic: She says outlandish things for sheer shock, and her provocations can sometimes fall embarrassingly flat. Overall, Rivers makes for a fun cinematic subject, even if she does wear out her welcome occasionally.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of “A Piece of Work” is watching Rivers as she tries to mount her theater piece, “A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress.” A look back at her own life, which is narrated by Rivers herself, the show represents the many competing aspects of her personality: the desire to be taken seriously as an artist, the hunger for attention, the fascination with her own experiences, and the inability to let go of past resentments. Tellingly, the filmmakers never tip their hand about how we should feel about “A Work in Progress,” but like the documentary itself, the theater piece becomes a symbol of Rivers’ warts-and-all demeanor, and her commitment to making the best work possible is oddly inspiring. From an objective perspective, Joan Rivers’ critical reputation has long been tarnished because of her endless self-promotion and questionable career choices, but “A Piece of Work” argues that any life lived fully will be marked by failures. In that light, Rivers’ refusal to ever give up on herself has a real dignity. You’ll probably be expecting a healthy dose of laughs from this film, but its poignancy and humanity may surprise you.
Running time: 84 minutes
Distributor: IFC Films
Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Production company: Break-Thru Films  
Producers: Ricki Stern, Seth Keal, Annie Sundberg
Executive Producer: Ricki Stern
Writer: Ricki Stern
Editor: Penelope Falk
Cinematography: Charles Miller
Music: Paul Brill