“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is the correct title for a documentary about a woman like her, though not necessarily for the reason you’re thinking. While Rivers is notorious for getting a lot of work done on her face, the kind of work this film focuses on has more to do with her legacy as one of the most well-known comedians of the 20th century, as well as what she’s been up to in the 21st. When she shows us a calendar that’s overwhelmed with events like cameo appearances and standup routines, she talks about it as if it were a dream come true. “That’s happiness,” she says.
Alas, that particular calendar is one of her older ones – lately, work has started to get a little bit scarce. She hopes she can get the ball rolling again with a one-woman show in Europe, which, if big enough, might open the door to Broadway. She’s also shopping around a pilot for a TV show, turning up on QVC to endorse the occasional beauty product and passing through comedy clubs to tear the house down. She sure has enough material to do it with – she’s come up with so many jokes in the last 30 years that she has to file them all in a card catalog.
There’s a little bit here about her personal life, too, like a marriage that ended when her husband killed himself, and the strong bond she shares with her daughter, Melissa. Still, the crux of the whole thing is mostly about her career, which itself has been full of plenty of ups and downs. She’s had a few business partners that have given her both – when she left “The Tonight Show” in 1986 to become the host of her own late-night talk show on Fox, Rivers says Johnny Carson was so upset that he never talked to her again. (Although she can’t prove it, she says it’s no accident that, when she went on “The Celebrity Apprentice” a year ago, it was her first appearance on NBC in 23 years.)
While Rivers is known for not holding any punches, the movie holds a couple of them on her behalf. We see how close she is with her right-hand man, Billy, but when he’s suddenly fired for defrauding her, the film never gets around to explaining any of the circumstances that you’d think would be essential to the narrative thread. Even though you can’t help but feel a little cheated, it’s still refreshing to see a documentary that approaches its subject in a way that demands us to consider her in a new light. With all the plastic surgery she’s had through the years, she’s still got a couple of faces you haven’t seen yet.
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