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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work 

Can She Talk? A Piece of Work lets Rivers be her funny, bitter, anxious, distinctive self.

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If I were either Ricki Stern or Annie Sundberg, and I had had any part in coming up with the subtitle for Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, we'd never stop high-fiving. Sure, the title is a play on the subject's notorious alterations through plastic surgery. Yes, it also refers to her as a unique character. But in this hilariously insightful year-in-the-life documentary, it's also an acknowledgement of the then-75-year-old comedian's self-definition through her career, and her compulsion to keep it in high gear.

The filmmakers follow Rivers through what she herself acknowledges is a down period in 2008-09, where she points to blank pages on her calendar in months ahead and says, "Do you want to see what fear is? That's fear." She has hopes, however, that her new autobiographical stage play will be successful, and she's also about to begin a stint on Celebrity Apprentice with her daughter, Melissa, that could bring her a brand-new audience.

And it becomes clear why that's crucial to Riversboth because of her need to maintain a posh lifestyle that occasionally seems paycheck-to-paycheck, and because of her need for the approval of an audience. While the back story touches on her groundbreaking success as a female comedian, her rift with Johnny Carson, and the tragedy of her husband's suicide, this isn't primarily a retrospective biography. It's about Rivers as a performer who maintains a massive card catalog of 30 years worth of jokes, and fumes over seeing Kathy Griffinwho praises Rivers here for opening doorstake the gigs that used to be hers.

The film does take a less interesting detour involving Rivers' conflict with her long-time manager, Billy Sammeth, but it's necessary perhaps to illustrate the way career trumps everything for Rivers, even personal relationships. A Piece of Work scores because it spends most of its time watching its subject simply be her funny, bitter, anxious, distinctive self.

JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK

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Documentary
Not Rated

Now playing
only at Broadway Centre Cinemas

Scott Renshaw:


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