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June 27, 2010

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Trailblazing comic still has well of wit and rant

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 with her appearance.

There is the voice, which still has that recognizable raspy edge to it, that amped-up indignation, even in her mid-70s. But then there is the face, which does not move regardless of the intensity of her stand-up comedy rants -- the result of too much plastic surgery. Nothing is off-limits when she is talking about herself, which is simultaneously part of her appeal and part of her narcissism.

There is 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 are not 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 is 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 is a performer. She is hardworking. She is a perfectionist.

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 has ever told over the 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. 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.


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