A Life in Progress

29 Jun

It’s unfortunate but true to say that over the years, Joan Rivers has been reduced to a caricature. Between her “Can we tawk?” catchphrase, her jewelry-hawking on QVC, her plastic surgery, and her award-show red carpet interviews, it’s gotten hard to take Joan seriously anymore.

And yet, at age 75, Joan’s still around.

Not only that, she’s riding another wave of popularity.

What’s her secret to success? Well, as we learn in the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it’s simply hard work.

In the film, we see Joan at both her best and her worst. The doc actually begins with an extreme close-up of her face, minus the makeup, and it’s a good indication of just how revealing Piece of Work is going to be. We see Joan as the bitchy comic many of us love, but it’s the quieter moments that are more interesting.

Joan’s biggest fear is a calendar with no appointments. As she says, not only is she not ready to retire, but she’s addicted to work — and perhaps just as important, she needs some way to pay for the extravagant lifestyle she leads. When people say she opened the door for women, Joan snaps back, “I’m still opening it.”

Piece of Work covers a year of Joan’s life, one that includes the opening and closing of her autobiographical play, her roast on Comedy Central, and her appearance on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice — and we learn that the Apprentice gig was even sweeter for Joan because after she left The Tonight Show to launch her own late-night talk show on FOX, Johnny Carson blacklisted her and she hadn’t appeared on NBC since.

The film presents a portrait of a woman many probably see as care-free and mean-spirited, and reveals her as someone who is just the opposite. She takes her career very seriously, particularly her acting; say what you want about her comedy (and good luck when she replies), but please don’t tell her she’s a bad actress. That she can’t take.

She’s devoted to her family and you can tell she’s also very attached to her staff (all jokes to the contrary). She laughs, she cries, she dishes out the insults, and yes, she can’t take the ones slung at her as well as you think she can.

What it comes down to is that Piece of Work presents Joan as innately human. If you didn’t love the woman before seeing the movie, you certainly will after.

Is this the most insightful documentary ever? No. “At the heart of every comedian lies a sad clown” is a theme we’ve heard and seen many times before. But Joan is an engaging presence, and the anecdotal style of the film makes for a quick year in the life.

I’m giving Piece of Work a B+.

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