Even if she's not quite up your alley, Joan Rivers is a pretty funny person. Person, not necessarily comedian; she's one of those celebrities who seem to always be in character, their public persona transcending whatever shreds of normalcy their life might contain. Presumably she's just like the rest of us, but the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which opens on Friday at Market Street, does not lift the veil of fame. It piles on higher the topsy-turvy obsession that mainstream culture has with glamour and its downsides.
The movie follows a year in Rivers' life as she struggles through a slump in her career — she is afraid of not being taken seriously, of not being wanted, of being replaced by a new generation of raunchy comedians. Lounging in her New York residence, all mirrors and chandeliers and Marie Antoinette, she expresses her fear of having an empty calendar for the week ahead of her. Surrounded by her staff, she makes a few remarks of self-pity and then fires off a succession of expletives and euphemisms for private parts.
On this account, it's hard to really feel sorry for her. The documentary doesn't portray her in a bad light, by any means, but it's obvious that it isn't trying to be sympathetic. In a way it's just an extension of one of Rivers' shows, carving her ups and downs into a comedic arc that resembles an E! True Hollywood Story. Regardless, she's a humorous performer, so it's an entertaining watch, even with its lack of non-celebrity distance.
We've come to expect stand-up comedians to be ultimately tragic figures. No doubt Rivers is a far more sorrowful individual than she seems, although probably no documentary will be able to betray her as such. The most realistic glimpse we get of Rivers comes while she is performing in Wisconsin, when she makes a wisecrack about Helen Keller. One man in the audience yells at her that it isn't funny — he has a deaf son. Rivers comes near to breaking down on him, calling him an idiot for not understanding what comedy is about: making fun of things that are uncomfortable and unhappy so that we can overcome them. As irreverently self-centered as her jokes are, Rivers must be overcoming quite a bit.