Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Dir. Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 84mins

It's interesting to note that Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is the greatest celebrity documentary to come along since In Bed with Madonna in 1991 because they both put a woman who has been relentless in her determination to subvert the public's perception of what a woman in their field should be and can do. And, furthermore, they do it while facing ever-mounting criticism that they are "going too far" and "too old". Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's documentary may focus on the tail-end of the comedienne's life, whereas Alek Keshishian's groundbreaking meld of black and white backstage divadom and lavish onstage performance pieces focused on the early peak of its subject, both serve as viable testaments to the tenacity and fire-in-the-belly spirit of two women who have each been equally liberating and man-baiting in line with men's expectations. A Piece of Work isn't the masterpiece that Madonna (also known as Madonna: Truth or Dare outside of Australia) is, but it's a searing portrait and wounding testimonial for the celebrity funny woman that can also rank as the funniest movie of 2010.

Beginning at the time of Joan Rivers' 75th birthday, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work spends a year in the life of the icon (to use a word that so many of her followers, comedians and fans alike, use.) She indicates that it has been a tough time and, ever the workaholic, she will play any gig offered to her no matter the seat venue. If it's a hundred seat dive bar in the Bronx with stools held together using gaffer tape or a 4000-seat Las Vegas-style double-hitter with Don Rickles, she gives it the same energy and force. Throughout the year she will reach highs (Celebrity Apprentice, she hopes, will put her back on top), lows (the loss of a lifelong business partner and friend in circumstances that the directors leave mysteriously unresolved) and everything in between and it's all incredibly fascination.

Again, much like In Bed with Madonna, this film's big moment is one that exemplifies everything that is both incredible and terrible about its big star. Whereas Madonna strutted across the stage in 1991 performing "Express Yourself" whilst grabbing her crotch, disrobing herself and her male dancers and belting out one of the defining songs of her career so too does Joan Rivers go through, at a mile a second, all the things that have made her JOAN RIVERS: SUBJECT OF DOCUMENTARY in a bravura sequence that will split the haters from the lovers. As Rivers makes her way through a comedy routine in the Midwest state of Wisconsin, a place she jokes has no gays because they murdered them all, she breezes through joke after joke that should feel rote and blasé ("we've seen it all before" you can hear people commenting about Rivers AND Madonna in equal measure), but her energy and force power her and the audience through. It's a thrill. Of course, for Rivers, it doesn't come easy and a joke about Helen Keller brings about a heckler who, let's just say, feels the full force of Rivers' wrath (although backstage she expresses her sadness at the man's situation). Both stars are in their element in these equally compelling set pieces and much like how "Express Yourself" is the musical highlight on In Bed with Madonna, Rivers' comedy routine in Wisconsin is the funniest sequence in A Piece of Work. Even a joke about the vintage of a bottle of wine ("May? That was a good month!") kills. Sometimes, and I suspect Joan Rivers knows this too even when she wouldn't admit it, you have to have your back against the wall before you reach your truest potential.

At 85 minutes long the film is brisk and cuts very close to the bare bones that Stern and Sundberg have given the film. It does not provide a detailed, start to finish look at Rivers' life as much is missing from her story including her first marriage, her successful daytime talk show (although she is seen winner her Emmy for it) and her several film roles, which is especially odd since Rivers talks about never being taken seriously as an actress. Instead they show footage of the 1994 TV movie Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, which she co-starred in with her daughter Melissa (as themselves), which is as navel-gazing as it gets. Whether it was the directors' intentions to omit this stuff or if Rivers didn't want it included lest audiences see that she hasn't suffered as much as she suggests, it feels sloppy.

Nevertheless, occasional sloppiness can be forgiven when the movie is as funny as it is. It's not the film itself is particularly funny - it's sad rather than uproarious - but Rivers' act is legitimately guffaw inducing. Jokes about Osama Bin Laden, vagina slippers, anal sex, Asian mail-order brides and all the other smut that has filled Rivers' repertoire for decades is as funny as ever and if you respond to Rivers' acidic comedy then you will be in good stead with this documentary.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work isn't so much about "unmasking" a famous pop culture icon - in fact the opening scene involves make-up artists putting Rivers' face on in a moment that recalls The Devil Wears Prada - but aims to show the life of someone who has seen it all and can't give up because, if she does, what does she have left? As her daughter Melissa says, her mother needs the gratification. Without it she will feel her life is a waste and so while her life may appear easy - giving out fashion advice during awards seasons for ludicrous amounts of money (although, to her, it's not ludicrous since she lives in a Versailles-in-NYC style apartment, sends her staff's children to private schools and provides for several relatives), the film proves it is not. You may not like her or her act, but you can't deny her work ethic. Furthermore, it speaks to the universal nature of why artists do what they do and how deeply they are filled with self-loathing, self-doubt and misery. Rivers' life is reduced to a few upcoming pages in a diary. If it's empty her life is meaningless, if it's covered in ink then it means she's wanted and that she has purpose, and isn't that the same for us all? It's a remarkable piece of cinema and if the same mission had been attempted with someone far less funny and far less fascinating then it wouldn't have been as successful, but with Rivers it is, indeed, a piece of work. A-

No comments: