Joan Rivers  A Piece of WorkBy now you've read the rave reviews of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work", a documentary about the comedienne directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Roger Ebert called it a fascinating "portrait of a woman who will not accept defeat, who will not slow down, who must prove herself over and again." Manohla Dargis watched the film twice and deemed it "convulsively funny". Entertainment Weekly gave the film an "A". If the critics haven't convinced you to spend 85 minutes in the presence of the septuagenarian diva—and, given her oeuvre, I don't blame you—here are three more reasons to get yourself to the cinema.


Looking at footage of the comedienne over the years, it's strange to see how different Rivers looks from picture to picture—and not just in a pre- and post-plastic surgery sense. Rivers is that unusual example of a celebrity who appears vastly different depending on the angle, the lighting and how spasmodic she happens to be acting at the moment. There's no consistency to her good looks (and she was, with those doe eyes and mop of hair, good-looking once). Occasionally she's unrecognisable. Still, being a performer of the unhinged kind, it's not hard to believe a young Rivers when she delivers her "ugly" jokes—"I was so ugly that they sent my picture to "Ripley's Believe It or Not" and he sent it back and said, "I don't believe it." Today Rivers no longer resembles her young self, but her new face is, if not beautiful, at least a marvel to behold.


In his review, David Edelstein wrote, "I never knew she worked this blue, that she had this much Lenny Bruce in her." He is right to call the comedienne's stage patter "surreal". She cusses, she unleashes the dirtiest of anatomical slang, she berates her daughter for refusing to pose for Playboy. She discusses her hatred of children and fat people. Her loathing—of others and herself—is profane and profuse. She's often very funny. Nonetheless, you'll want to see the movie with a companion whose hand you can squeeze in alarm.


Skilled portraits of passionate workaholics are one of the true pleasures of documentary, no matter what the discipline in question. Grace Coddington in "The September Issue", the designers of "Helvetica", and Ralph Nader in "An Unreasonable Man" are a few recent examples. Joan Rivers may top them all. At 75 years old (the age Rivers was at the time of shooting), the woman's work habits are more reminiscent of a medical intern's residency than of the breezy retirement she could well afford. The film's most intimate shots have Rivers crouching over cue cards, studying scripts, sifting through dossiers and showing off an exhaustive card catalogue that includes, or will include, every joke she's ever written.

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is playing in select cinemas in America