Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work

One thing I love about a well-made documentary is how it can totally wrap me up in a subject – or in this case a person – that never held my interest before. I remember going into “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” very hesitantly and suspiciously and coming out a huge admirer.

I was never a fan of Joan Rivers – or rather I never really paid much attention to her. And seeing publicity stills had me thinking, “Oh, a movie about another aging celebrity with plastic surgery gone very, very wrong.” It’s a testament to the highly engaging film “Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” that I now find her a most fascinating celebrity.

My wife watched – and loved – the movie with me the other night as I prepared for this review and she made a comment that captured the movie as well as any statement could: “She acts like her career is just starting.”

At age 75 and after 40 years of constant work, Rivers still has that feel of a youngster searching for her first big break. She seems a woman who never has to stop proving herself. And maybe she is. She was a trailblazer in the field of foul-mouthed female comedians. She was way ahead of her time and this world of Viagra commercials on prime-time television is only now catching up to her.

She has spent most of her career though playing a man’s game. Lenny Bruce could talk dirty and get immortalized on screen by Dustin Hoffman. Richard Pryor could get away with almost anything. Rivers once got a bit racy and Jack Lemmon walked out of her show in a huff. When she had the nerve to try her own late-night show, her mentor Johnny Carson never spoke to her again.

What also struck me about Rivers is how much she is a walking testament to the value of age and experience. Two scenes in particular stood out:

Early in the movie, Rivers hangs out in her home office rifling through file cabinets filled with index cards containing a life’s worth of jokes. Then she starts flipping through binders and albums containing cocktail napkins and torn sheets of notebook paper with even more jokes quickly jotted down on the run, jokes still awaiting an index card.

The scene reminded me of the recent Rolling Stones documentary “Shine a Light” where Mick Jagger spends hours sifting through the band’s countless hits trying to assemble the perfect set list. Jagger and Rivers face an enviable problem, too much good material, too little time in a show.

The strongest moment has Rivers on stage in Wisconsin, working an aging casino crowd. She cracks a joke about Helen Keller and is heckled by an angry man who shouts, “That’s not funny. I have a deaf son.” Rivers’ handling of the moment shows the skill and mastery of stand-up craft that can only come from 40 years on the road.

Rivers herself summarizes her career nicely near the end of the film, as well as her amazing “keep on trucking” attitude. “You can’t get hit by lightning without standing in the rain.” And, as I now know, her life has been filled with lightning strikes, both electrifying and devastating. She’s spent a lot of time in the rain.

“Joan Rivers: a Piece of Work” is rated R for language. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Jan. 20 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

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