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RIVER RUNS OVER IT: A new documentary on Joan Rivers trains the spotlight on the comedian's superhuman drive to succeed.

Oral Gratification

Desperation, courage and a mouth that would make a sailor blush in 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'

By Christina Waters

CAN WE TALK? If you're not exhausted after watching the mesmerizing new docupic on comic legend Joan Rivers, then you're not conscious. At 76, the much-lifted standup icon sets a blistering pace, powering through a schedule of shows, engagements, rehearsals and appearances that would kill anyone half her age. To say that this proto-feminist is driven is to say that Tiger Woods plays a little golf.

At just under an hour and a half, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work holds you captive in the way that a freeway accident does. You cannot look away, even as the subject of the film reveals its subject's inner needs and obsessions in graphic detail. Filmed during a recent year in the life of the hard-working comic—"an empty calendar means nobody wants me"—Joan Rivers takes us through Rivers' uneven cycles of bookings, feuds with colleagues and lonely life surrounded by a staff of attendants, makeup artists, managers, agents and personal assistants until we begin to form a queasy snapshot of a woman who refuses to quit.

Maybe the filmmakers outfoxed her, or maybe Rivers just didn't care, but the eerily vulnerable performer displays every unhealed grudge and wound for the camera. Her sadness is palpable even behind her mask of silicone, Botox and implants. The filmmakers smartly intersperse confessions about needing money, her rage against growing old and insecurity about her skill with shots of her working the crowd at Manhattan comedy clubs. The humor is raunchy, but behind the foul mouth is a smart, multitasking businesswoman.

We feast on the opulent interior of her Park Avenue penthouse. "This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived," Rivers observes, "if she had had money." To live this well even though her career has sagged in recent years, she has to hustle. And hustle she does. We watch her agents work the phones—"I'll take any job," she moans in her raspy voice. And we listen to her recall her early breakthrough days with Johnny Carson, when her topical, sexually charged humor literally invented thinking woman's standup. She displays a wall of file drawers: "There are 30 years' worth of jokes in these file cabinets," she says, trailing scarlet fingernails over the cabinets. Her fanatical need to succeed swoops off the screen and grabs you by the throat.

Yet the film neatly intersects her energetic angst with poignant shots of her faltering gait, grasping for helping hands to assist her out of taxis. Like all master comics, her work is fueled by anger—anger at the husband who committed suicide, anger that she isn't young, anger that she was never taken seriously as an actress. In one revealing moment as she rehearses for an autobiographical play, she scoffs at those who refuse to recognize her acting talent. "I'm an actress, always an actress," she says. "I play a comedian."

Alarmingly vulgar—leave the kids at home unless you want to do a whole lot of explaining—she is a brilliantly self-reflective spirit. "Always a Jew," she laughs as she brandishes a can of Lysol on the way to the bathroom of her hotel suite.

Hilarious, pathetic and gross, Joan Rivers—whoever she may be behind that carefully packaged persona—is indeed a piece of work. While the camera never shows her without full makeup, and she explains why she absolutely needs that mask, it does track her superhuman schedule of openings, booksignings and midnight flights. In a few swift shots we watch her arriving in Minneapolis at 3:30am after having done a show in Palm Springs hours earlier. A feast for fans and a revelation for skeptics, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work gives us a splendidly unlikable woman who is just too tough to be ignored.

JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (R; 84 min.), directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg and starring Rivers, Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.

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