LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Audiences who know Joan Rivers only for plastic surgery and time-filling red-carpet banter are in for something else with “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a highly entertaining documentary revealing a serious talent behind the one-note present-day reputation.
The picture, opening in limited release on Friday through IFC Films, would play well on TV, a medium that has already presented so many highs and lows in the performer’s career.
A substantial gear-shift for directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who filmed Darfur in “The Devil Came on Horseback,” the movie plays for laughs (and gets them) but is not without its serious side, capturing a woman whose need to keep busy — she’ll take any gig, she says, joking that she’d knock out her teeth in order to advertise denture cream — borders on the pathological.
Digging through the vaults, the filmmakers find excellent stand-up material from as far back in TV history as Jack Paar’s show. They present a comedienne who over the years got away with joking about abortion and who even today can shock those around her: In one scene with her staff, Rivers tests a quip about Michelle Obama that produced a few gasps in the Sundance audience.
Rivers lives like old-school Manhattan aristocracy, and clearly feels the daily need to pay the bills. Much of the film catches her either lamenting the current lack of heat in her career or trying to stoke the fire — during the year “Piece of Work” chronicles, she publishes two books, stages a new play and enters “Celebrity Apprentice” in between doing stand-up and visiting the QVC channel to hawk a jewelry line.
We see enough of her personal life to decide that it hardly exists except in relation to her public one. This, after all, is a woman who responded to her husband’s suicide by making a movie about it with her daughter. Stern and Sundberg capture bits of drama involving a beloved but unreliable manager, a saga that affords one of a few moments in which Rivers tears up onscreen, threatening to mar that much-tweaked face.
Rivers keeps it together, though, and the film’s suggestion is that she always does — sticking it out through periods of stardom and of mockery, hoping to outlast geezer comedians George Burns and Bob Hope — not to mention all the taboo-treading young women who have followed in her footsteps.