When the Academy of Motion Picture inexplicably bestowed an Oscar on the Three-Six Mafia in 2006 the themes of, “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp” rang universally down on us all; hustling every day until you die. No one personifies this ethos more so than Joan Rivers, and it is on full display in the documentary from Ricki Stern and her co-director, Anne Sundberg. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is an interesting look at the life of an elder states-woman of the entertainment industry, and her struggle to stay relevant and working at the age of seventy-five. While Joan Rivers herself is still a spitfire of a woman, cracking some of the most lewd jokes one ever heard, with a mouth like a sailor and the ambition of a twenty-year old, the actual film lacks some of her spunk.
The film follows Ms. Rivers from her seventy-fifth birthday for almost fourteen months, through her win on the NBC reality show, “Celebrity Apprentice.” For the most part it is a good look behind the scenes at a woman who broke down the doors of comedy for women in the 1960’s, and miraculously is still working today. Though at the beginning of the film not so much.
We first find Rivers at a very low point in her career, having become almost a caricature of herself due to the perception that she is little more than an insane plastic surgery crazed has-been. She plays little clubs in the middle of nowhere, far from her heyday as a regular on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” and laments the blank pages of her date book. However as the film goes on viewers are treated to a much more interesting portrait of an artist as an old woman.
She lives lavishly, her apartment in New York resembles a room in Versailles, and she has to work to keep up that rent. She comes across as both a woman who will do anything to pay her gargantuan pile of bills, and a warm-hearted performer that would tell jokes just for laughs if she had to.
And tell jokes she does. With Betty White’s appearance on SNL there has been a resurgence of senior comediennes, however, where White seemed willing, yet somewhat uncomfortable with the “old lady says dirty stuff bit,” Rivers seems to live in it. For a woman her age it is surprising to see such blue material come out of her mouth. Most are used to the toned down “Red Carpet” Rivers, but few have seen that Rivers miming anal sex while checking her blackberry. Stand up comedy is more than just being funny, there is definite skill involved, and in one of the most interesting scenes in the film, one in which she defuses an offended heckler by making fun of Osama bin Laden, it is obvious that Rivers still has it. Though despite her talents most have never seen this side, and the documentary should be given credit for exposing this Rivers to a new audience.
Some of the most interesting scenes are those in which Rivers’ low self-esteem come into play. Her reaction to the vicious jokes lobbed at her from the roastees of the Comedy Central Roast is heartbreaking, and reveals an interesting look at the time-honored tradition, and how it might not be so honored. But as Rivers says, Comedy Central pays well.
And she needs the paper, because as she states, Rivers is an industry unto herself supporting assistants, maids, cooks, lawyers, and managers. That manager is Billy Sammeth, who had worked with Joan for more than thirty years, but during the course of filming their relationship dissolves. Unfortunately for the viewing public, it does so off screen. Billy is just absent. Stern covers the firing with a tear filled interview with Rivers who seems heartbroken, and a couple hazy, slo-motion shots of the man, which misleads the audience into thinking there is a much larger story there. There isn’t. During our interview Stern revealed that Billy just stopped returning calls, and Joan gave him the ax; nothing deeper or darker as the scene would lead the viewer to believe. The storytelling the directors employ points the audience down a path far from the truth, but also is so open ended it leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the film.
Another area in which the film is lacking is any sort of universality. As a sketch of an endearing performer “A Piece of Work” succeeds, but tying the narrative to a larger picture of Showbiz, or women who broke boundaries, or the aged still working into the their golden years, or just something the film makes no effort, and because of it comes off a little hollow.
If her career had not been supplied a reprieve by Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” the film would have been dealt a very different conclusion, probably one not so up beat. During the year she had a play that was welcomed with luke-warm arms, a book that didn’t make a huge splash, and many stand up gigs that don’t provide enough capital to keep Joan Rivers, Inc. in rhinestones. It makes one wonder if this film isn’t just another one of those things that Ms. Rivers hoped to put her back on top.
Nonetheless, for fans of the woman, the film is a fun, often hilarious, if not a bit cursory, look behind the scenes of a show business legend. Others may see a new side to a household name. Joan Rivers is out there hustling, every day, all day, and according to her, wouldn’t have it any other way. She is ever trying to sell herself, and this film proves that in the end she is her own pimp.
El Luchador Rating: 3 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)