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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - Movie Review - 2010

Getting to Know Joan Rivers

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Joan Rivers has been a public figure for so long, you might just think you know her. In Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg follow the comedienne as she assails the seasons of her 75th year. With fly-on-the-wall observations and close-up-and-personal interviews, they reveal that Rivers flows deeper than her brashly funny truth-and-trash-talking face-lifted blonde public persona normally allows us to see. Yes, Rivers is bleached, brazen, outspoken, restructured and all, but she's also absolutely brilliant, disciplined, generous and caring. She'd make a wonderful friend. Big surprise.

The Insider Look

Using archival footage of Rivers' performances in clubs and on TV, filmmakers Stern and Sundberg chronicle the comedienne's career from her earliest appearances, to late night TV triumphs and rejection, through her red carpet fashion commentaries phase and on to victory on Donald Trumph's Celebrity Apprentice reality TV show in 2009. The footage is underscored and punctuated with voice overs from Rivers' pals such as Don Rickles and Kathy Griffin, her confidantes and staff, and daughter Melissa. But it's Rivers' own extremely honest, uncensored personal commentary that makes this film remarkable.

It so happens that filmmaker Ricki Stern's mother is a close friend of Rivers' and, so, the comedienne agreed to be the subject of this biodoc, and to allow the filmmakers unrestricted access to her daily life, her thoughts about career and feelings about family.

Rivers is a workaholic who keeps record of every joke she hears or thinks up on neatly organized file cards. She dreads having a day off -- empty boxes on wall calendars scare her more than anything and we see her struggling to get gigs to fill them. We spend time with her in the apartment in which she lives extremely lavishly, but we see that she has to work like a dog to support the extravagant life style we see throughout the film, and especially during the Thanksgiving feast she throws for family and friends.

The Ultimate Entertainer

Joan Rivers in 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'

IFC Films
Beneath her drive and ambition, at the core of Rivers' character, is a genuinely quirky take on the world and its ways, and a bullish persistence in expressing her opinions about things good and bad -- including her husband's suicide, the rough patches in her relationship with her daughter and sometimes co-star, Melissa, and being suddenly dropped by her professional pal and early supporter Johnny Carson. In turns, Rivers is content, angry or sad, but all of those emotions seem to be riding above a subversive and ongoing terror that there won't be a next show to do.

The Bottom Line

The documentary is clearly a tribute to Joan Rivers and all she's accomplished. Rich with Rivers' trademark wit and razzle dazzle, the film is sure to entertain. But, while the filmmakers present a rush of amusing one-liners and a chain of interesting events in Rivers' life to, they also gently guide you to contemplate the value of celebrity and our celebrity culture.

As seen in their previous films -- including The Devil Came On Horseback, about a military advisor who feel compelled to take a stand against the genocide in Darfur, and The Trials of Darryl Hunt, about a wrongly convicted man who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit -- Stern and Sundberg have a rare talent for defining and presenting their central characters. As a character, Joan Rivers demands their skills, and they do their subject proud. Very proud.

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Film Details

  • Title: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
  • Directors: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg
  • Release Date: June 11, 2010 (limited theatrical release)
  • Running Time: 84 mins.
  • MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual humor
  • Parents Advisory: Parents Guide: Content advisory for parents
  • Locations: New York City
  • Language: English
  • Distribution: IFC Films

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