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Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Mumview: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Quick summary

A year in the life of 75-year-old comedian Joan Rivers as she works to keep working. That's about it, really.

Does it work the way it should?

Making a documentary, one generally needs some kind of angle, and the problem with following a single person is that it's hard not to end up giving the audience nothing much beyond what that person chooses to tell the camera. (After all, they can always clam up and refuse to be filmed if you seem to be undermining them, and unlike with ensemble pieces, other people may not produce interesting clashes of perspective.) It's a problem that this movie doesn't get past.

So: Joan Rivers is a workaholic who never wants to retire, and fears quiet spells more than anything; keeping your profile up in showbiz is stressful and scary; her real aspiration is acting; like most performers, she's deeply insecure and covers it up with a big persona. This we find out in the first five minutes, and from then on, we've pretty much got the point. It's pretty good at getting us to sympathise with her, but a much shorter film could have done much the same thing.

There's some discussion about the suicide of her husband, the birth of her daughter and their relationship now, but this material, which is all more dramatic than the round of bookings and phone calls we get to see, is thrown in as background rather than given much space to consider, and we hear very few people's opinions about it beyond Rivers herself, and sometimes her daughter. That's what we get for a structure that's about following Rivers for a year and seeing what happens - but what happens is pretty much the usual up-down struggle of a hardworking performer and Rivers telling us that she's insecure and wants to work.

The thing is, if you're following somebody for a year and it's a pretty ordinary year, and you don't want to delve into their past or interrogate their self-image, you're going to get a lot of repetition. When the same sorts of things keep happening, people tend to keep saying the same things as well. In the credits we see Rivers joke that it would be a great thing for the film if she died during shooting - the last year of Joan Rivers's life would be such a great subject! - and with her usual slice-and-dice perception, she actually makes a good point. Not that I'd wish Rivers dead just to, um, liven up the film; I'd rather be a bit bored and have her alive and well ... but since the film is bounded by its time frame, it would have been a bigger draw if something not routine had happened.

So we don't get much of Rivers's past and only a certain amount of her actual comedy, and quite a lot of driving around and making phone calls and worrying over bookings. It made me sympathise with Rivers (enough to feel sorry that I'm giving the movie a bad review, considering how hard we see her taking negative theatrical reviews), but despite the grandeur of the Brixton Ritzy's Screen One auditorium, it's not at all a cinematic piece. Ironically for a film about a performer who plays to crowds of thousands, it feels out of place in a big, plush theatre; its natural home seems more like nine o'clock on a Thursday night on terrestrial TV.

Ready for this?

I'm not a particular Rivers expert, so I'm probably not the reviewer they're hoping for. If you're a big fan of Rivers, the brief treatment of her past will spare you from hearing too much of what you already know, and the contrast between her abrasive stage persona and her anxious backstage self may deepen your appreciation. Rivers comes across as one of those people who puts up spikes because she's afraid of not being liked - there's a scene where she frets that nobody approached her at a party (which we don't get to see) and her daughter points out that she acted unapproachable, for instance, which is one of the more interesting moments. But I wouldn't recommend the film to a non-Rivers fan.

Life amongst the groundlings

Perhaps because of the rain - pushing a pram and holding an umbrella don't mix - the auditorium was pretty empty, with a certain amount of squeaking from a baby nearby. But I fear the simplest answer is this: in the last third of the movie I went out to the ladies', changed a nappy, rearranged clothes and came back. And I didn't feel I'd miss anything much. That's pretty much the test; the bottom line, one might say. Possibly there were some startling revelations in the time I was gone, but it's a film that delivers its message quickly and from there on you've pretty much seen it. If the truth be told, that nappy could have waited.

So, any good?
I'd like to be nicer about it if I could, because it did make me feel for Joan Rivers. But the ticket cost seven pounds, and a fair price would have been about three. If you don't have a baby to wheel out, you'll probably have more fun just watching Rivers do stand-up. Good comedian, likeable person, small movie.


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