"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"
This is a seething portrait of a complex woman, both brilliant and pathetic, funny as hell but with pain in every laugh, a talented individual who veers from seeming in total control of her world to being out of touch with reality.
It is an always mesmerizing look at the origins of this standup comic genius who wrote her ticket with the endorsement of Johnny Carson, and who never quite recovered from her split with him to host a failed solo talk show, a move which precipitated the suicide of her manager-husband.
It's a look at a woman who is addicted to performing on-stage, who has saved drawers full of thousands of jokes she has written, all catalogued on index cards, someone who needs the approval of her audience, especially the New York audience; ironically, one who holds that audience in contempt. It is a one-track world we see, much of it of her own making, one of constant hostility and scrutiny, a world of cruel humor and incredible sadness.
Joan Rivers addiction to performing seeks to fill a personal void of acceptance that is bottomless and unfillable; and to maintain an ornate lifestyle that is just as important to her as the satisfactions of pleasing an audience.
Rivers has undergone plastic surgery in order to feel accepted in this competitive milieu; has degraded herself on Celebrity Roasts and on Trump's apprentice; who wants desperately to be known as an actress, but cannot move beyond the lackluster response to her own self-indulgent play about her own life; who loves her daughter and her close circle of friends and elicits real sympathy as she bares her soul about her losses; only to alienate a viewer with her single-minded pursuit of the high life, often losing her way in vicious comedy.
Does it work as a film? Very much. I was not a big fan of Rivers, and the film has me both liking her less, and more. Using a collage of incident with a vaguely chronological structure, the film observes all with a clear and open gaze and does not pass judgment. The pain seeps through, even as you might laugh wildly at the most politically incorrect humor you have ever heard.
For those who have followed Rivers since the '60's it is an illuminating and shocking self-portrait. To those for whom Rivers has become just an annoying red-carpet presence, there is much to learn, and come to appreciate, about the lengths one will go to stay relevant in the unforgiving hothouse that is show business.
"The Secret of Kells"