Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the new film by Full Frame mainstays Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback; The Trials of Darryl Hunt), is a brisk, nonstop funny look at a year in the life of Joan Rivers.
While it deals with the sad state of Rivers' career, the only depressing thing about it is the fact that it considers Kathy Griffin part of the sharp, pioneering comedian's legacy. As we see from Rivers' present-day standup act, and even more so from her everyday, minute-to-minute wisecracking, Rivers has still got it, and the true inheritors of her wit and innovation are Tina Fey and Sarah Silverman, smart comedians who continue to innovate, not corny show-biz trash talkers like Griffin.
In the year that Piece of Work encapsulates, Rivers bemoans her flimsy performance calendar, turns 75, works some stand-up gigs, shoots down a heckler (punctuating a profane rant with a hilarious one-liner) and wins Celebrity Apprentice. We meet the people close to her and watch her reaction and reminiscences as a significant member of her team disappears from her life.
Regrettably short on archival footage (undoubtedly due to rights or expense, no fault of the filmmakers), Piece of Work still manages to give a strong sense of Rivers' early personal and professional lives, a strong context to help the audience understand the present, with which the film is thankfully more concerned. Nothing arrives more dead onscreen than a film concerned solely with the past. Rivers does plenty of tearful reflecting for the camera, but never without a bit of incisive, self-deprecating humor. Even when she feels great after winning Celebrity Apprentice, she gets a jab in: It's not exactly the Oscars.
By way of recommendation, I should say that I had little interest in the film before seeing it. As Rivers makes sure to point out, she was a significant force in the world of comedy and late-night television before she became a red-carpet fashion sniper or a plastic surgery cautionary tale. I had seen some of her early work and liked it, but I was afraid Piece of Work would be a fawning attempt to set the record straight or a bland collection of talking heads testifying to how great Rivers is, or used to be.
In fact, the film is largely a verité-style portrait of Rivers with plenty of momentum—due in large part to the way its quick-witted, light-on-her feet subject keeps the action and the camera moving. Whether holding forth in her luxurious Manhattan apartment, riding in the back of one of many chauffeured cars or spraying down a hotel bathroom with Lysol, Rivers is spry, intelligent and unapologetically in love with being filmed.
With such a dynamic subject, it may seem like the filmmakers have little to do but press Record, and their admittedly flat, murky aesthetic doesn't do much to recommend their craftsmanship. But they have masterfully edited a year's worth of footage down to a tight 84 minutes, with no confusing ellipses during which a viewer can feel the time passing. We get a real sense of spending a year in this world, and the act of cutting Rivers' motor-mouth zingers together is akin to writing a monologue. Comedy is all about timing, and so is editing. Stern and Sundberg have nailed it on both counts.