Joan Rivers shows the camera her deepest fear -- a blank page in her appointment calendar. "It means that nobody wants me," the bawdy and trailblazing stand-up comedian says.
At 75, instead of settling down into a cozy semi-retirement, Rivers pushes herself harder than ever. In the entertaining and eye-opening documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," we see her honor the late George Carlin at the Kennedy Center, perform a one-woman show in London, pimp her line of jewelry on QVC, compete on "Celebrity Apprentice," do book signings of her latest memoir, smile through a barrage of cruel insults in a Comedy Central roast, and play the Lake of the Torches casino in northern Wisconsin.
I have to admit to not having much interest in Rivers before seeing Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's film. Her kind of comedy always seemed crass and obvious even when she was hot, guest-hosting "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" in the 1980s. Now, between her glaringly obvious plastic surgery and irritating red carpet interviews at the Oscars, the comedian seems to have become her own punch line.
But "A Piece of Work" displays a comedian who is much savvier, much more vulnerable and frankly much funnier than we usually see on the small screen. The term "workaholic" has been overused, but Rivers really does seem addicted to her work; she turns almost nothing down, and seems at her happiest when she's scrambling from one gig to the next, even if that means doing a full day of work in Palm Springs, then catching a redeye for another full day in Minneapolis.
Even though she doesn't seem to need the money or the acclaim, she's constantly hungry, constantly comparing herself to her peers. At the Carlin event, she frets that other comedians like Jon Stewart and Garry Shandling will be funnier than her. Kathy Griffin appears in the film lauding the advances Rivers has made for female comedians; later, we overhear Rivers griping that Griffin is stealing all her gigs.
But on stage she's in her element, an absolutely ferocious performer who says things more shocking than most comedians half her age. (If you've only seen her on TV, brace yourself.) At the Wisconsin gig, when a politically incorrect heckler tries to dress her down over a Helen Keller joke, she decimates him.
Stern and Sundberg seem to have unfettered access to Rivers and her small but loyal entourage. The cameras are there for every limousine ride, and in every depressing backstage area. In some ways, Rivers is at her best (and at her funniest) when she's facing adversity, whether it's a crummy hotel room or the indifference of critics.
The film does look back somewhat, with early clips of a young Rivers on talk shows, bantering with Carson (who would later have her blackballed from NBC for starting her own talk show on Fox). But "A Piece of Work" is really about Rivers still moving forward, relentlessly, like a shark.
Is there a whiff of desperation in some of her ventures, in her unwillingness to ease back on the throttle a little? Maybe. But she's also inspiring in her desperation, in her belief that, no matter how old you are or what you want out of life, you just keep going and going until somebody tells you to stop.
And then you still keep going.