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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (DVD Review)

3 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $2.9 million
$27.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for language and sexual humor.

There’s nothing like reaching 75 and having to worry about what is or isn’t a good career move. And given today’s economy, the situation likely applies to an unthinkable volume of people, or so we once thought. Still, there’s added poignancy — or for a viewer, added fascination — when the career involved centers on something as volatile as comedy (or worse, standup comedy).

Like Joan Rivers herself, this well-received documentary by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg isn’t afraid to go in some discomforting or even icky directions, and, as such, it ranks as one of the more honest portrayals of … well, if not the show biz underbelly, at least its unforgiving nature. Given last summer’s critical response, it’s rather amazing that Work failed to make the short-list of 15 from which the coming Oscar nominations for feature documentary will soon emerge. The academy, though, has a history of overlooking non-fiction portraits of the entertainment industry and not just in the far-distant past. Given that Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired failed to make the cut last year — still an appalling oversight — any slight is possible.

In retrospect, it appears that the filmmakers got handed a documentarian’s dream in that their saga begins with Rivers’ career on the downside before her ultimate first-place selection — merely appearing on the show might have been enough — on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Early on, we see that her appointment book isn’t exactly jammed with inked listings for future gigs; there’s even a joke about Rivers having to wear dark glasses to avoid the glare of empty white pages with nothing on them. At an age when most peers would be taking on a kind of emeritus status, she is adamant about not wanting to hear about how she “opened the door” for Kathy Griffin and other comediennes, much as Phyllis Diller opened the door for Rivers decades ago. She needs work to support her digs (not exactly an efficiency apartment) and, it’s implied, perhaps some clan members who are on the dole. But whereas Diller talked about her husband or the Laundromat or the trips to the hairdresser, Rivers took on more dicey material. There’s actually an ancient TV clip here of her alluding to abortion (back when, as she correctly notes, the word wasn’t even mentioned), and Rivers recalls addressing the show biz casting couch factor by publicly exclaiming, “I put out” — whereupon she notes that a disgusted Jack Lemmon got up and left the club where she was performing. Now, however (as the documentary begins), there’s a personal fear on her part that she’s become old news or maybe even quaint — though she has never done herself any favors by becoming a poster figure for plastic surgery or by the sometimes public soap opera-ish relationship with daughter Melissa, with whom she once starred in a teary TV biopic.

Some of Work’s story deals with past slights and even tragedies, such as career-maker Johnny Carson’s permanent refusal to speak to Rivers after she accepted the offer to do a Fox Network talk show or husband Edward Rosenberg’s suicide when the network wanted to fire him as producer. But most of it deals with the day-to-day grind up hustling up work. We see Rivers joking with her assistant, showing off a wall of file boxes that contain decades of jokes and even engaging in an on-stage shouting match with an offended member of the audience at a memorable boondocks engagement. In an assignment she approaches with irony even though she can use the exposure, Rivers also signs on to be part of the Washington, D.C., festivities honoring the late George Carlin as recipient of the Mark Twain Award in a Kennedy Center ceremony — even though she notes that such a posh outing symbolizes everything that Carlin hated. She compares it to herself getting a major award from “the German Bund.”

The DVD and Blu-ray both feature outtakes that are, indeed, weaker than the release print plus a decent Q&A that took place at a Sundance Festival showing. One of the happy notes on which the film ends is a co-billed engagement with Don Rickles (still full of stand-up insults at 84), who was subject of director John Landis’s Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project a couple years ago. Now, there’s a double bill in the making without even thinking about it.

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