She would seem to be the most brutally straightforward woman in America, but Joan Rivers emerges as a jumble of contradictions in the documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," beginning most immediately — and superficially — with her appearance.
There's the voice, which still has that recognizable raspy edge to it, that amped-up indignation, even in her mid-70s. But then there's the face, which doesn't move regardless of the intensity of her stand-up comedy rants — the result of too much plastic surgery, which she's all too happy to discuss. Nothing is off limits when she's talking about herself, which is simultaneously part of her appeal and part of her narcissism.
There's the desire to be taken seriously as an actress, as evidenced by how deeply cut she feels when the London reviews of her one-woman play aren't exactly raves, but also a willingness to endorse any product and a genuine enthusiasm for the opportunities that might arise from appearing on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice."
And then there's the acerbic wit that spares no one and nothing, a trailblazing comic presence, juxtaposed with a traditional, almost quaint longing for loyalty, honesty and trust — one that brings her to tears — even after all these years in show business.
Rivers is never boring, that's for sure, even when the film itself grows repetitive by hammering home a few key points. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg followed her around for a year, starting with her 75th birthday, and at various times Rivers herself or those around her state the obvious: She's a performer. She's hardworking. She's a perfectionist.
What is she waiting for?
Because she gave the filmmakers unlimited access to her home and her life, we get to see the meticulously labeled file cabinets in her office — a wall full of them — containing note cards with every joke she's ever told for decades. We see her arrive at hotels in the middle of the night after performing a set, only to be awakened scant hours later to hop on a plane, fly somewhere else and do it all over again.
Rivers' drive is awe-inspiring, while her desperate yearning to be back on top is more than a little sad. When looking at her calendar, she jokes that she has to wear sunglasses because the whiteness of the empty pages is blinding (apparently Kathy Griffin now commands all the big Las Vegas and comedy-club gigs). She sells jewelry on QVC to help support her lavish lifestyle, and her gaudy New York apartment is a sight to behold.
But after 40 years as a comedian, what is she waiting for? What will finally make her happy? Family alone doesn't satisfy her; daughter Melissa, an only child, is only half kidding when she says that growing up she had a sibling: "the career." Filling in for Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show" was, of course, a career-defining highlight. But having other female comics approach her with reverence, thanking her for having opened the door for them, inspires her to respond that they can go (expletive) themselves.
Yes, the biting sense of humor is undeniably still there, and aside from her unexpected flashes of vulnerability, that's what sticks with you most after watching "A Piece of Work." Watching her do stand-up is mesmerizing: the rhythm of it, the relentlessness. So maybe we're lucky that Rivers doesn't want to retire on a beach somewhere — that she still wants to talk.