If you get the phrase “Borsht Belt,” then you’ll love the new documentary “Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work.” If not, you probably know the aging comedienne as her tabloid persona: raunchy plastic surgery monster. A joke that imploded on herself long ago. But even the staunchest hater will be surprised to find Ms. Rivers a viciously tenacious artist. A 75-year-old filthy force of nature, she’s still hoping for her next big break, which is surprising since she’s one of the most successful women in entertainment history.
Over the course of a year, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg follow her every move. In the U.K., a play opens about her life; daughter Melissa shares some airtime on “The Apprentice” with Donald Trump; we even ride along to Wisconsin for one of the many thankless gigs she uses to keep her staff employed. But the most interesting parts, as expected, are when she takes the stage. The directors must have known they struck gold when, at the show in Wisconsin, an audience member is offended by a Helen Keller joke. (He has a deaf child and didn’t find it funny.) Masterfully, Rivers takes the offensive, screaming expletives and turning it all into a laugh. It’s a master class on the anatomy of a heckle, or rather the anti-heckle. If only to learn from her onstage skills, all comedians should be required to watch.
In the end, more is revealed about Rivers than I think she even realizes. She has lived an extravagant and extraordinary life, and has learned to adjust with the times brilliantly. The 60s didn’t really suit her off-color comedy. Now, this grandmother can discuss the productive advantages of anal sex freely. (You can do the laundry or check your blackberry while bent over.) Sadly, even though she may be at the height of her powers, it’s pretty clear, even perhaps to Joan, that her time’s almost over. The gigs are drying up. “Kathy Griffin took all of them!” she justifies.
“When a young comedienne comes up to me and says, ‘You paved the way for me’. . . Paved? Paved?!’ You want to say, ‘Go fuck yourself, I’m still paving it,'” she says, but that’s mostly hope and bluster. Rivers might not have yesterday’s crowds and acclaim, but “A Piece of Work” is a glimpse inside the darkly humorous final act of a legendary diva.