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Joan Rivers really is a piece of work, and I'm not just referring to the plastic face: the woman is always on. Now that Rivers has made a place for herself as the butt of all our jokes, her long road to fame and fortune, her many accomplishments and her hardworking attitude are often overlooked. She's not just a raspy voiced woman with her heels firmly planted in the plush of the red carpet, but an active standup comedian and an avid business woman.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens in a very profound way, with several shots of Rivers without makeup. It isn't as profound as you might imagine, focusing only on small portions of her mug at a time, but it establishes right from the start that Rivers' guard is down and we're really about to get an inside look. Director Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg's film follows Rivers through an entire year, and from the outset she isn't ashamed to admit that it's a rough one, in which her datebook consists primarily of the thing she dreads the most: blank white pages. In fact, Rivers isn't ashamed much of anything, and she often pokes fun at her own plastic surgery overdose and tosses in a few jokes about her low rung on the fame ladder.
But amidst all of the laughs is a woman well aware of her shortcomings. She's not buried in the sorrow of her misfortunes, but is clearly impacted by them. Whether she's telling a joke halfheartedly or outright expressing her frustration, the pain behind her eyes is evident and far more honest than the plastic facial feature they're hiding behind. In a particularly touching section of the film we see a play about Rivers' life story evolve from a simple idea into a reality, and get a taste of the massive amounts of time and energy Rivers puts into it. Sadly, we also see the devastating effect of bad reviews. Who knew Rivers cared so much about what others thought of her?
With a famous face at its core, A Piece of Work is innately intriguing. Stern and Sunberg formulate an excellent representation of our leading lady, showing the good and the bad, providing the required 360-degree view. My sole gripe is their choice to pass the film off as a year in the life of Joan Rivers. Events like Thanksgiving feel as though they’re forced into the film with no other purpose but to prove that we’re still progressing through the year. The transitions are harsh, but the pieces they’re connecting are so fascinating, you’ll have no problem reconnecting with the material.
If you think A Piece of Work is going to be as hilarious as a Joan Rivers standup routine, you're wrong-- the self-mocking jokes are funny, but almost make you feel guilty for laughing. Rivers has had it rough and this is her chance to show the world there's much more to her than a raspy voice, faux face and a filing cabinet packed with jokes. She's scarred by the misfortunes of her past, fears the loss of work like anybody else and even gets nervous before performances. The moral of this story? Joan Rivers is a real person too.