But that criticism, while not entirely false, is somewhat misdirected. Actually, it's shockingly accurate, but so what? I mean, what do you expect? Being famous for something other than having a sex tape generally involves a lot of hard work, dedication and a neglect for basic human values. So if we want famous people, we should accept that some of them are going to wind up looking like golems.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows Ms. Rivers for one year of her fading career as she desperately clings to some hope of recognition, fame and happiness. It's a tale of someone who was once 10 steps from the top, and then fell down a few steps, and now can't get over it. It's the tale of a woman who says of a tribute to the late George Carlin, "It's important for me, because I'm included." It's the story of a woman who says, without irony, "I thank God every time I step into a limousine. Seriously, I stop, and I thank God." And she says this after riding in a limo, while wearing furs, as she went out to distribute meals to the less-fortunate. Like, what do you do when Joan Rivers shows up at your cramped apartment, carrying some microwaved turkey and grooming an enormous mink?
So this is the story of a woman who is not precisely likable, nor exactly self-aware about her self-involvement. But still, in 84 minutes, Rivers becomes, if not beloved, at least charmingly needy and sad.
Or that's the story that directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg have edited together. They play up (or maybe couldn't help but include) scenes of Rivers' insecurity and resentment, and her lack of connection to others. When she leaves the stage from her play, she walks through a line of adoring fans who are praising her—and then she immediately starts to talk about the bad reviews she dreads. "I was hurt," she says of some criticism she'd received 40 years earlier, and adds, switching to the present tense, "It kills me."
This constant need for affirmation may just be the comedian's disease. Rivers' daughter, Melissa, seems to think so, talking about how her mother is one of those people who stands on a stage and says, "Laugh! Laugh at me or with me! I don't care." And Melissa sees a dark side to her mother that Joan clearly misses.
When both Joan and Melissa are contestants on The Apprentice, Joan talks about how it would kill her if Melissa got fired. "I hope I get fired before her; I really do. I couldn't handle staying on if she was fired." Melissa, however, responds that this is just the kind of thing her mother says, and that Joan will probably do everything she can to beat her daughter.
So Joan is a character of questionable taste. She asks her staff if she can joke about Michelle Obama, saying, "Jackie Kennedy was Jackie O. So can I call Michelle Obama Blackie O?" No, probably not.
Well, at least she asked the staff, and therefore didn't wind up doing that gag on stage. But all of Rivers' social discomfort gets in the way of what seems to be the point of the film: showing the human being behind the plastic-surgery fright mask. And what makes this film work is that the mask is the human being. In reference to her face lifts and skin peels and Botox, an interviewer asks her if she doesn't want to be loved for her "real self." "What real self?" she says, having subsumed her soul into her cheek implants.
Of course, Rivers is a person, and her life is marked by tragedies as much as it is by excessive spending and self-absorption. But she's also, at least occasionally, a consummate performer. Her fierce talent comes through in her stand-up sequences, especially an amazing bit in which she handles a heckler. She does a Helen Keller joke (never the highlight of a comedy act), and an aggrieved audience member shouts, "That's not funny; I have a deaf son."
Rivers then very carefully eviscerates the man, winning back the audience and receiving a resounding round of applause. Because underneath the hateable exterior, there really is a core of talent and drive that allowed her to survive as a woman in a field that, when she started out, was a boys' club run by sexists whose feral monstrosity could perhaps only be defeated by someone like Joan—who is equally monstrous in her own way, but using her powers, at least occasionally, for something good.