Late in this documentary profile of a year in the life of Joan Rivers – her 75th year, in fact, although assumptions about that age mean nothing when put next to her indefatigable work ethic and still-spry physicality – the legendary comedienne approaches with considerable dread an upcoming taping of a Comedy Central roast devoted to her. Rivers predicts the punchlines will draw exclusively on her extensive plastic surgery – rightly, it turns out, as the filmmakers demonstrate in a devastating montage of male comics rough-handling Rivers in the special (a "tribute" for which Rivers was handsomely paid). The sequence is unsettling on multiple levels: This isn't a roast; it's a charring,
was my flinching first reaction, until I remembered this was an hours-long affair, edited down to 90 minutes for TV, and further condensed here to its most serrated sound bites. But from a critical standpoint, the sequence needles for another reason: It's edited to blatantly pander for pity. Really, the male comics hired to roast Rivers could hardly avoid the subject of her famously doctored face, and neither can Stern and Sundberg (award-winning filmmakers of such politically conscious docs as The Trials of Darryl Hunt
and The Devil Came on Horseback
). In fact, they zoom in, filming Rivers' naked visage as a makeup artist goes to work. An early montage deftly charts both the evolution of that face, from a not-unattractive angularity to her modern-day, tautly puffed and leonine look, and her remarkable career, from early stand-up appearances in the Fifties and anointment by then-king of late night Johnny Carson on to her own disastrous foray into talk shows, 1989's The Joan Rivers Show
, and the mounting of an autobiographical play in 2008. The development of that show, called Joan Rivers: Work in Progress by a Life in Progress
, gives the film an early structure and tension; when it abruptly closes after lackluster reviews in London, the film becomes more scattershot. Never uninteresting – and often wickedly funny, with the sardonic, canny comedienne not at all censoring herself for the camera – Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
is a softball, an entirely sympathetic portrait of the artist at an advancing age. That's right, artist
– and to a generation that knows Rivers only as a screeching red-carpet provocateur or as an overknifed monstrosity, that revelation alone is worth the cost of admission.