Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The surprising and gut-bustingly hilarious JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK

My biggest question before viewing JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK was why filmmakers Ricki Stern (below, left) and Anne Sundberg (below, right) would collaborate on this subject, after previously giving us the likes of The Devil Came on Horseback (about the genocide in Darfur) and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (tackling the [il]legal system in our own country). Both films manage to be extraordinarily depressing and finally uplifting because of the way in which they force us to confront what would otherwise seem very difficult to bear. Now that I've seen their new film, no further explanation is needed. If their new documentary is necessarily lighter in weight, it bears the same hallmarks as their earlier films -- including getting close enough to the person-in-charge so that the documentary becomes, necessarily, both about and for its subject.

Under Stern & Sundberg's microscope, Ms Rivers proves a fascinating object that the twosome is able to probe with a combination of clarity, honesty and humor (much of it provided by their subject) -- if perhaps with something less than full candor. Post viewing, I did begin to wonder just how much control the subject exercised over the finished product. Did gaining this kind of access to a celebrity mean that Rivers called at least a few of the shots? Although in the press materials the filmmakers note that they were given for fourteen months unlimited access to "meetings, rehearsals, hiring and firings, dress fittings, birthdays, dog training and holidays" -- whew -- one can still wonder about the editing process: What made the cut, what did not, and why?

Still, the movie offers a surprisingly rich, warts-and-jewelry look at a life dedicated to being funny by making people laugh, wince and think -- as our best comedians have always done. If that life if also a sad one (obsessive and blinkered to a large extent) that has taken a toll on its owner and those closest to her, well: You get what you ask for, and you pay for it, too. As I am sure Ms. Rivers would be the first to admit.

As usual, I will not go into much about "what" you are going to see. Granted, there's no "narrative plot" to spoil in most documentaries. But there are enough juicy tidbits and chunks of surprising information that it would be stupid and graceless to give them away here. I will say one thing, however, in way of a warning. If you read, as I did ( literally within an hour of seeing the documentary) the piece by Jonathan Van Meter that appeared on Ms. Rivers in New York magazine's end-of-May issue, you may find yourself shocked by the amount of duplication between the article and movie.  Juicy tidbit after juicy tidbit is repeated until I found myself thinking, "Someone should sue." (And TrustMovies doesn't even like lawyers.)

Even if you did read the New York article, there's some discovery to be made and fun to be had as the filmmakers cover everything from Rivers' new theater piece (performed to success at the Edinburgh Festival but not so much in London) and her history on and with Johnny Carson to her recent appearance on -- oh, god -- Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice.  (How desperate is she? As she tells us early in in the doc, "I was playing the Bronx at 4:30 in the afternoon!")  By the finale of this very amusing, sometimes sad, occasionally creepy documentary,  you may view this "piece of work" in a way that adapts that famous line about travel:  "She's a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there."

After being featured at various film fests across the country this year -- and just finishing its stint as Centerpiece presentation at NEWFEST here in New York City -- Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens Friday, June 11, on three screens at the IFC Center, as well as Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Cinemas 1, 2, 3 and the Chelsea Clearview.  

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I personally think that Joan Rivers deserves a few documentaries, she’s got enough years to chronicle haha and they’d probably all be entertaining

James van Maanen, said...

You're probably right, Anon. A woman this old, talented and continuing to work hard and well is worth more than a single 84-minute movie! Maybe we'll get another for her 80th or 90th birthday. Or finally get to see the theater piece that's shown (briefly) in this movie....

Anonymous said...

well put james. I just read an interview with Joan on indiewire, its pretty funny
http://www.indiewire.com/article/10_things_you_want_to_know_about_joan_rivers1/

James van Maanen, said...

INDIEWIRE is great (wish I had more time to read it) -- and so is this "10 Things" Interview w/Rivers. If you, readers, have time: Check it out.

Anonymous said...

Can We Talk? Caught the Joan Rivers doc in NY and man was I impressed. Ny times agrees wit me too. That Joan is a piece of work! And it’s about time she’s back in the spotlight.

James van Maanen, said...

Has she ever been OUT of the spotlight, Anonymous? (Gosh, there are a lot you out there with the same name. Are you, by chance, all related?) Aside from The New York Times, most of us other critics agree with you, too.