Documentarian Ricki Stern’s slender portrait of Joan Rivers—subtitled “a year in the life of a semi-legend”—is 82 banal, drawn-out minutes in the life of an aged comedienne who is well past her prime. More than anything, the film illustrates the relentlessness of the Hollywood machine in flogging dead (or, in this case, slowly dying) horses, and of those horses to not only put up with that ritual mistreatment, but to enable it and ask for more. Rivers, who is now 75 years old, explains that retiring from her workaholic lifestyle would mean she’d lose the pricey “creature comforts” she insists on maintaining—even though by her own admission she could easily live a modest, more comfortable life in an apartment that didn’t look like Versailles had vomited into an apartment in mid-town Manhattan. (Such semi-retirement from the public eye might also give her a chance to develop a better relationship with her daughter Melissa; if this film is anything to go by, they don’t seem to be on particularly good terms.)
Stern’s portrait—co-directed by her regular collaborator, Anne Sundberg—never justifies its ‘access-all-areas’ conceit: we watch as Rivers frets over filling her initially vacant schedule with wall-to-wall, coast-to-coast appointments; as she rehearses and then performs an autobiographical monologue play to tour the Edinburgh Festival and London’s West End before coming home to Broadway; as she joins Donald Trump for a season of Celebrity Apprentice; and as she subjects audiences in near-dive-bars and other out-of-the-way locations (i.e., some poor folks in rural Wisconsin) to her notoriously crass stand-up show. She attends a George Carlin memorial (“Exactly the sort of thing he’d hate,” she explains), and is roasted on the Comedy Central channel for being old and, thanks to an excessive, decades-long plastic surgery regime, resembling no one so much as Michael Jackson.
Though some of the fodder of traditional biography is interpolated throughout—her early influence and standing as a comic coupled with her recurrent appearances on The Tonight Show, plus something of her family history, including her late husband’s suicide—there’s never enough of it, and it’s never considered with enough seriousness to elevate the film from its current-affairs-lite milieu. The film’s single moment of honesty comes when Rivers is bemoaning the departure (employment-wise, not mortally) of her long-time assistant Billy Sammeth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nathan Lane in deportment, voice, and looks—and is now suing his former boss for defamation. Rivers, teary-eyed, reveals her own deep-rooted insecurities when she realises that, after Billy has left her, there’s no-one who can act as a secondary memory; no-one to call up and say “Do you remember that time when…?”
This is light, fluffy entertainment that (unintentionally?) doubles as a damning indictment of the never-receding work required of those wanting (or needing, perhaps pathologically) to maintain fame, and as a sad window on the lifestyles of the über-rich and once-famous. It would have worked just as well folded into an episode of Oprah or condensed for Entertainment Tonight—only no-one would have probably cared enough to watch.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is out now on DVD through Madman. Special features include a handful of deleted scenes and an audio commentary by Rivers.