Dir. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
(2010, R, 84 min)
★ ★ ★

My familiarity with Joan Rivers began at about the time she was already hosting red-carpet specials for the E! Network. I had not seen her earlier stand-up work and had only the faintest knowledge of her embattled history with Johnny Carson. In giving an overview of her career, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a successful film, showcasing an interesting, charismatic personality and a trailblazer for women in comedy. However, the film is also a bit over-congratulatory. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg present a warts-and-all portrait, but even the warts seem designed to flatter her: she works too hard, she’s too fiercely loyal, she speaks her mind too boldly. The accounts of her life and career are predominantly her own. This is strictly Joan Rivers through her own eyes.

Rivers on stage

The directors show us scenes Rivers undoubtedly would want us to see, as when she brings her grandson along to deliver food to the needy and is told by the recipient, disabled photographer Flo Fox, how much Joan’s comedy has been a comfort to her. That’s all well and good, but I preferred the edgier stand-up act where she complains about delivering food to an AIDS patient on his way to the gym. Fans greet her to tell her how underappreciated, how inspirational she is. When a heckler interrupts her act in Wisconsin, the emphasis is on how triumphantly she counters his outrage: “9/11!” she exclaims. “If we didn’t laugh, where would we all be?” Rivers is candid about the details of her life, but the film still seems guarded. If the filmmakers included anything Rivers’s publicist wouldn’t approve, this might be a great film.

Two aspects make it worth seeing anyway: (1) the clips from Rivers’s stand-up act both past and present, as lively and audacious now as it was thirty or forty years ago, and (2) the revelations about Rivers’s approach to her career, which show dogged determination but perhaps more desperation than she intends for us to see, and that humanizes her. She lives an opulent lifestyle and will take any job to sustain it. On the phone with a company that matches products with celebrity endorsers, she offers — only half-joking, I think — to wear a diaper or knock out her teeth to sell dentures. She subjects herself to Comedy Central’s roast just for the paycheck, and though roaster Kathy Griffin assures her it’s an “honor,” Rivers foresees the indignity of constant old-age and plastic-surgery jokes. She is extremely sensitive to criticism and scorn, and behind that good-sport smile she’s cringing.

She works hard for the money, but she’s honest and pragmatic about how sometimes it’s only about the money. Her autobiographical stage show was a labor of love, but she also hoped it would lead to other offers. Her controversial appearance on NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice was just a bid for exposure on prime-time television, especially on the network that blacklisted her after her fallout with Carson. Her agent explains — and he means it as a compliment — that Rivers will stand in the rain longer than anyone else waiting for lightning to strike. That’s a tenacious way to make a living, but not always the best way to live your life.