With late night television dominating entertainment headlines this year in a less-than-flattering light, the time seems ripe to revisit the public's neglect of Joan Rivers. The 77-year-old comic's reputation sank from rising star to showbiz disaster over the course of a decade, mainly due to a shift in media perspective: The subversive broadcast performer became the disastrous face of plastic surgery. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," the new documentary from directorial team Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, initially deals with that trajectory in visual terms. The comedienne first appears in unflattering close-up, getting mobbed with make-up, literally hiding the scars of her past.
The Rivers persona of her later period, which gradually emerged after her fallout with Johnny Carson and the bombing of her solo show on Fox in 1986, virtually erased her initial appeal. "A Piece of Work" essentially restores it - with some caveats. Stern and Sundberg follow the endlessly self-deprecating Rivers through the course of her experiences in 2008, during which the tour of her autobiographical one-woman show and a stint on "Celebrity Apprentice" offered radically separate opportunities to keep her noteworthy.
Assembled in a verité style blended with talking heads, "A Piece of Work" displays Rivers as a fascinating duality: She's the consummate performer, as capable of putting on a good show as she did thirty years ago; but she also suffers from a distinct form of celebrity alienation. Professional urgency has turned her into a relentless self-promoter, taking on virtually any gig that comes her way while carefully strategizing with a team of advisors. Assuming the camera didn't enforce the mood, Rivers appears perpetually stuck in mid-performance, dropping ribald one-liners in intimate settings with the same brash satisfaction that she brings to the stage.
Though the filmmakers include flashbacks to Rivers's initial rise and fall, they essentially allow her to tell her own story - proudly, confidently and obviously with plenty of comedic inspiration. But that also limits the extent to which the movie reaches the most personal aspects of its subject. However, so much of the Rivers story played out in public terms that a basic summary of the events has dramatic potential simply because Rivers makes such a lively narrator. Moving from the suicide of her producer-husband Edgar Rosenberg, to her rebirth as a perennial red carpet presence, and finally arriving at her current busy period, "A Piece of Work" captures the consistency of the Rivers persona without digging too much beneath the surface.
Onscreen, Rivers never stops being funny, but the movie builds emotional weight out of implication. Consider the talent of this unstoppably funny woman, probably a better candidate for sprucing up "The Tonight Show" than either Conan or Jay, mercilessly wasting her talent by competing for Donald Trump. Always fighting to justify her desperation, the Rivers in "A Piece of Work" constantly pits herself against the threat of failure with new chances to prove her worth. She's an ideal figure of sympathy even as she rejects compassion from others.
Viewed in one way, "A Piece of Work" is "The Wrestler" of stand-up comic portraits, a snapshot of getting over the hill and attempting to regain balance again and again. Still, the documentary also functions perfectly well as a showcase of Rivers's comedic abilities, which haven't aged a bit. Freely unleashing gags about physical disabilities and anal sex, she rises above (or, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, rises below) the modern boundaries of good taste.
Providing the mold for later generations of female comics, from Kathy Griffin to Sarah Silverman (if only because she pioneered the image of a cocky female stand-up), hasn't made Rivers's routine irrelevant. She remains a natural in the spotlight, as demonstrated in a mesmerizing scene where she ably takes down an offended heckler. This heated exchange, the movie's defining moment, displays Rivers wide awake in the heat of her act and working just as hard as her contemporaries.
As the title says, she's a piece of work, but she's also scrambling to keep on working. At the time of this writing, the first automatic search suggestion when one types "Joan Rivers" into Google is "plastic surgery before and after." If "A Piece of Work" has any lasting impact, it lies in the capacity to take the story far deeper than that.