For the past twenty years Joan Rivers, once a notable female comedian, went from telling jokes to becoming a walking joke. And though she has always been convinced the audience was laughing with her, she’s been wholly unaware that the public is actually laughing at her. In spite of the obvious fact that Rivers long lost her comedic power after her stint on the Tonight Show, she’s gone from a legend to an absolute shell of a woman whose entire career has relied on gaining work more than garnering work of respectability. Whether it’s judging celebrities’ fashion and weight on a premium cable channel, appearing on reality shows for no apparent reason, or continuing her saggy dated comedy routine, River is indeed what the film proclaims her. She’s a real piece of work. And not one who is bound to become a female role model any time soon.
This is an individual whose own friends once declared her the epitome of feminism, who feels as if she has to butcher her face, and work like a dog in order to be considered relevant in the business. “A Piece of Work” is an unfocused documentary and one that is never really sure if it’s pitying Joan Rivers or exposing her for the delusional sad sack that she is. She has to work. Her assistant and friends insist it’s because she loves to work, but candid moments with Rivers indicate that she is something of an attention hound who works not to entertain, but to inject this notion in her mind that she is absolutely important. In one moment where she’s reviewing the script to a potential television pilot, she counts how many pages do not have her character in them.
She is planning a Broadway play that has some of the worst writing I’ve ever heard, to which she’s greeted with patronizing smiles from her associates upon a loud reading, and we’re reduced to viewing this world where Rivers has built herself as a queen where she’s barely a headline anymore. Directors Stern and Sundberg really lens Rivers as something of an antique who proclaims she’s racing against time, but will not admit she’s racing against her fading significance, and they posit key moments in her “process” that is really just one person laughing at her own jokes, all with a thick undertone of sadness and misery within the woman. From jokes about vagina farts, to Mel Gibson’s racism, Rivers literally struggles to find a joke that will make anyone but her laugh, and rarely to the directors lend her a giggle to ease her own sense of need for accomplishment, however minimal.
Only in the second half do the directors attempt to convey something of an inspirational story, but by the time we’ve seen Joan’s effect on her daughter who is also struggling to become a celebrity, and her love hate relationship with Kathy Griffin, it’s become pretty clear to the audience that Rivers is a celebrity. But only in her mind. The rest of the world simply pats her on the back in pity, scared to deliver the unfortunate news that she’s been halfway out the door since the late eighties, and will likely never be in on the joke. Joan Rivers is the classic tragic clown, a woman incapable of admitting defeat and owning up to her inability to keep up with a modern age of new comedy where she is no longer apart of. One of the most miserable documentaries of the year, Joan Rivers demonstrates her life will likely end in a whimper, and not a standing ovation. Laugh clown, laugh. Even though your heart is breaking.