Joan Rivers is an easy punch line, and she knows it. This intimate, fascinating documentary begins with the raucous comedian going through her daily makeup routine (practically donning war paint), before staring full on into the camera. Rivers is aware that her numerous plastic surgeries are the source of many a wisecrack, and this opening acts as a confrontational rejoinder, daring viewers to laugh. Yet there’s also a clear vulnerability beneath the rouge and eyeliner, something all too human that directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg slowly tease out over the course of the film.
A Piece of Work follows an eventful year in Rivers’s life, as she puts on an autobiographical play in Britain and stars on NBC’s The Apprentice...all between exhausting stand-up gigs. A camera in the room is as natural to the comedian as sunlight, but she’s still surprisingly forthcoming, talking openly, often brutally, about her addiction to celebrity and her workaholic nature. (The thing she fears the most? An empty date book.)
Rivers has been knocked down enough in life that her skin is thick, and she can still hold her own when needed: The most discomfiting scene takes place at a Midwest gig where a heckler chastises the stand-up for joking about the handicapped. Rivers responds with a hilariously virulent tirade that wins over the crowd, but then she’s shown backstage, reminding herself and others that the heckler surely has his own woes. It’s easy to think of comics, especially time-tested ones like Rivers, as mechanical laugh-generators. Stern and Sundberg allow her to reveal the deep-rooted humanity of those ever-present quips, and the effect is humbling.—Keith Uhlich
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