Another film exploring the life of a celebrity, although this one is a lot more straightforward and not nearly as funny as I’m Still Here. Okay, so it is still funny as it chronicles a year in the life of Joan Rivers, a once famous comedian who now is at what seems to be the end of her long career, the gigs waning down to almost nothing, the opportunities all but gone.
Therefore, a lot of the film is sustained on Joan Rivers doing subpar gigs, being humiliating, trying to do her own thing and a lot of self-loathing and self-pity. Joan’s persona makes the bleakness of her situation a bit more amusing and uplifting and a lot more watchable than the more serious and edgy I’m Still Here.
However, this also takes away from the real weight of the moment this film takes place at. Here she is at the absolute low of her career and a lot of the film is sustained on her riffing off jokes. There are some moments where the bleakness sinks in, where the audience gets the true sense of emptiness and how it would affect a person like Joan who thrives on being in the limelight.
Joan is always such a loud, talkative and irreverent personality that she clutters up almost every moment of the film. There’s no time to simply observe, to simply let it all sink it. She’s too busy making every moment of herself on camera yet another performance. It’s part of what makes this documentary imminently watchable, but it ruins the sense of tension and conflict the film needs to truly be compelling.
Another major problem is the ending, abrupt and unexpected. The film gives the tiniest of setups, mentions the particular arc once more and then jumps to the payoff. There’s no sign of any progression or change on one aspect of Joan Rivers’ life and at the end it becomes the big moment that allows the film to have a place of closure. Without that progression, it’s pulled out of thin air.
This leaves the ultimate resolution unsatisfying, not because of any ambiguity, but simply because it feels cheap, unwarranted as if the film didn’t earn it. Maybe Joan Rivers earned it, but the traits that helped her get to that point are only expressed through others who tell us of her hard work ethic and drive to succeed. The documentary is unable to capture that, only her jokes and self-loathing.
This leaves the audience wondering about the true Joan Rivers. Perhaps she is what she plays. Perhaps that’s her only identity. But when people talk about this focused, driven and meticulous Joan Rivers, a Joan Rivers who is constantly focusing on what she can do to progress further each and every day, the audience expects to see that. They don’t.
And that is the problem with Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It’s staged and put together as simply a comedic rendition of Joan Rivers life. It’s a documentary that doesn’t document the real Joan Rivers that is described throughout the film. It’s just another act, and a compelling one at that. Maybe that’s the point, maybe Joan Rivers the actor and Joan Rivers the person are inseparable and maybe only those who spend the day with her can see every little choice that makes her this person. And maybe, just maybe, getting those glimpses would have made this a great documentary.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing