Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (IFC Films, R)

A Piece of Work is the rare celebrity documentary that doesn’t sensationalize either the good or the bad times in its subject’s life.

Joan Rivers will not go quietly. With a career that’s lasted over 40 years, she’s still one of the most recognizable comedians in the country (if not the world). And yet, as the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows, staying in the spotlight ain’t easy.

On the cusp of her 75th birthday, we find Rivers dealing with what might be an entertainer’s worst fear: an empty date book. There are no days packed with interviews, book signings, tour dates and talk show appearances. Instead, she’s playing crappy basement clubs where they have to duct tape her chair together.

A Piece of Work isn’t just about Rivers’ history (her launch on The Tonight Show, the famous falling-out with Johnny Carson, her husband’s suicide), but how she hustles to continue making history. This film isn’t about fame or success; it’s about the never-ending work that (if you’re lucky) gets you there. The words of Rivers’ agent ring especially true, “It’s not whether the talent is good,” he tells us. “It’s whether they’re hot. Right now Joan needs some heat.”

Watching Rivers try to wheel, deal and work her way back to the forefront is only a small part of the fun in this film. The best part is seeing someone so connected to artifice in our minds willingly peel back the layers of makeup, jewelry and multiple plastic surgeries to be real with us, about everything.

Is she a bit obsessed with her appearance? Yes, but not so much that she won’t let us see her without makeup. Can Rivers be funny off-the-cuff? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean she’s not serious about writing and then cataloging decades worth of material. Does she often seem cavalier on stage? Definitely, but you better believe Rivers is worried about her daughter’s smoking, people going hungry and the unfairness of bad things happening to good people.

Several scenes show us who Rivers really is. My favorite, though, might be one that deals with a long-time employee who hasn’t been pulling his weight. When Rivers finally realizes that she can’t depend on him anymore, you can see the heartbreak on her face and hear it in her voice. The moment brought tears to my eyes.

A Piece of Work is the rare celebrity documentary that doesn’t sensationalize either the good or the bad times in its subject’s life. Everything just seems real; real ups, real downs, real emotion and real laughs. This should be required viewing for everyone looking for a career in the spotlight. | Adrienne Jones

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