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'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'

Joan Rivers in 'Joan Rivers - A Piece

Joan Rivers in 'Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work' directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Credit: Seth Keal/ IFC Films

 

Can we tawk?! It's hardly a surprise that the subject of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is funny: She's been cracking people up for 50 years, since she was doing "The Tonight Show" with Jack Paar and becoming the leading pioneer yenta on the frontier of potty-mouthed female stand-up. That she's a bit needy isn't exactly a shock, either: Comedy and insecurity go together like surf and turf in Vegas, and Rivers has always exuded a lovable sense of deep, deep desperation.

But it's the degree of need Rivers exhibits - as she hits her mid-70s and still needs to work - that puts teeth into this bio-doc by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. It might easily have been a powder-puff celebrity tribute; instead, it is subtly shaking with Rivers' ego, rage and panic. The scariest thing, the comedian says, is a blank page in her date book: It means nobody wants her, nobody cares. But even as the movie progresses and the dates fill up, one realizes it's another kind of emptiness that can't get filled, not by all the cosmetic surgery in the world. It's a kind of tragedy, of course: Art born of an inability to be happy. But it's made for some great comedy.

Stern and Sundberg have ventured into worrisome territory before - war-torn Africa ("The Devil Came on Horseback") - but nothing seems quite as exotic as the psychic landscape of Joan Rivers.

 

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