Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (R) (84 min.) — What could possibly scare a confessed rhymes-with-witch like Joan Rivers? For nearly 50 years as a comedian Rivers never backed down from anything — not the censors or being blackballed by Johnny Carson, not even her husband's suicide. Heaven help any heckler interrupting her act, or any booker negotiating with her.
"That's fear," Rivers says in this bio-doc, pointing to blank pages in her personal calendar, when no shows or paychecks are planned. Happiness is when even the margins are filled with gigs and appointments. At 75, Rivers' drive is remarkable, not only in getting gigs but keeping them as politically, socially, racially and humanly incorrect as possible.
Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg spent a year with Rivers making this movie, and probably deserve combat pay. The comic is, as the title says, a piece of work. But she's also a comedy icon, one of only a handful of women who ever got away with saying the types of things she says on stage. With that comes the insecurities all comedians know, plus aggressive self-pity. Rivers isn't easy to like, and she's proud of it.
Stern and Sundberg may be excused for not seeming in control of their movie. They go wherever Rivers takes them, and although it's usually entertaining there are times when more focus on a topic would help.
In the movie's best moments, Rivers is defiantly obnoxious and forthcoming about the fact that she'll do anything for money. At other times, the filmmakers attempt to make the wildcat warmer and fuzzier — doting on a grandson, bringing Thanksgiving dinners to homebound strangers — without fully examining the disconnect in personality. How can Rivers be both a bubbie and a banshee, and how does she rationalize that? No explanations are sought or offered.
We follow Rivers though a year, from the unavoidable failure of her autobiographical stage show (she insists that she's acting) to her triumph on Celebrity Apprentice leading to yet another career resurgence. She looks back, ahead and sideways at her life without revealing much more than what her punch lines exposed for years. It's a solid documentary but not a remarkable one.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work does mark the filmmaking debuts of a pair of University of South Florida graduates, producer Seth Keal and cinematographer Charles Miller, who will accompany the film at Tampa Theatre this weekend. See Friday's Etc, Page 2B for an interview with the pair. B
Steve Persall, Times film critic