Some folks cringe when they hear the name of Joan Rivers, not to mention happening getting a glimpse of a comedienne known for her dirty humor. Yet, they might surprised how involving a new documentary bearing her name and subtitled "A Piece of Work" happens to be.
At the outset of what touches on her life and career as she reached her diamond birthday, lenser Charles Miller really opens up Rivers from all the plastic surgery and face-lifts. The eye-lashes, the powder and rouge application seems to have given her a more (albeit artificial) youthful vigor.
But, what is well-written and directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg doesn't plod like others in the genre, identifying or criticizing its subject through interviewees whether theraputic or by unfair treatment. Rivers was hardly a favorite of PETA a while back when she fashioned a lot of fur, but was oblivious of what went on to make shills stand up against such an influential organization.
A lot has happened to a television (and radio) professional (as the subtitle indicates) who has paved the way for those like Kathy Griffin and Chelsea Handler remembering how she divided her routines among subjects like "Celebrities", "Mothers-In-Law", and "Pets".
There are spry old clips when Joan got her big break on the small-screen with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" as the late host really enjoyed her routines, at least until she went on to do her own show on another network. An epicurean lifestyle is where Rivers is at, but if Thanksgiving is any indication she has a side of her that relates (in a good way) to the Catherine Keener character in the cynical and understated Please Give.
With talking heads like her daughter Melissa, Don Rickles, Larry Thompson, and Griffin, this sharply edited cinema verite can be uproarious through a self-effacing mindset based on her many detractors and alterations to her visage (perhaps a nip/tuck here or there). Her targets include those like Victoria Principal and Helen Keller, and the rather even-handed film puts her indefatigable nature in focus given the opposition from reporters and hecklers.
Stern and Sundberg do an about-face from their more dramatic features with something that leaves a sensitively drawn impression that may leave more than a few relating to how she finds joy through her pungent demeanor as laughter is a nice way to be productive in one's later years.