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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

A painfully funny documentary • Muenzinger Auditorium

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

The entirely entertaining documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" — the title is a punning reference to the disfiguring "work" she has had done to her face — is as revealing and inevitably incomplete as one might expect from a film about an insecure, self-absorbed celebrity wit who exposes herself onstage with sometimes shocking intimacy yet hides behind a surgical Kabuki mask.

The entirely entertaining documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" — the title is a punning reference to the disfiguring "work" she has had done to her face — is as revealing and inevitably incomplete as one might expect from a film about an insecure, self-absorbed celebrity wit who exposes herself onstage with sometimes shocking intimacy yet hides behind a surgical Kabuki mask.

Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg had surprising access to Rivers, following the comic and her "small industry" of managers, agents, personal assistants and others for much of the grueling and eventful year of 2008-09, when Rivers turned 75, debuted a new autobiographical play in Edinburgh and London, was the subject of a Comedy Central "roast" and continued to perform standup in clubs and theaters. "When I say, 'Where are the gays?,' they're gonna say, 'Dead -- we killed them,'" she comments while being driven to a remote casino date in snowy Wisconsin, in a typically barbed do-we-laugh- or-do-we- shudder Rivers quip. Later, at the casino, she faces down a heckler with a deaf child who objects to her Helen Keller joke. "Don't you tell me what's funny!" she shouts, answering that her mother was deaf. "Life is so mean," she says, and that phrase could be the slogan on the bumper sticker on her limousine, along with: "Anger fuels the comedy."

The "year in the life" context imposes a false narrative onto the material that culminates with the theoretical happy ending of Rivers' victory on the 2009 edition of NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice," balanced by the sad note of the firing of Billy Sammeth, Rivers' longtime manager. (Sammeth is now suing the comic, claiming the film's depiction of him as an "absent" manager is defamatory and was contrived to add drama.) These subplots suggest that the film's unacknowledged true storyline is the coarsening and cheapening of popular show business itself. When Rivers was a Johnny Carson-anointed star comic in the 1960s, her fellow guest on "The Tonight Show" couch was as likely to be Gore Vidal as Soupy Sales. Now, a season of the same network's "Celebrity Apprentice" alongside Khloe Kardashian and Sandra Bullock betrayer Jesse James is supposed to represent some sort of career validation, and Rivers' stage act frequently panders to an audience trained by cable television standup programs to wildly applaud every F-bomb. In this context, each vintage clip of the young Rivers is a knockout. In one, Carson suggests men appreciate intelligent women. Rivers' quick response is apparently motivated by genuine disgust with male hypocrisy: "Oh, please — no man ever put his hand up a woman's dress looking for a library card."

— J. Beifuss, GoMemphis.com

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Sat October 2, 2010, 7:00 & 9:00; Sun October 3, 2010, 7:00 only, Muenzinger Auditorium

USA, 2010, English, Color, 84 min, R, 1.85:1

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