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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' is an extraordinary, bittersweet documentary about comedy, career and insecurity

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It would have been easy for the makers of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" to take a by-the-numbers approach to their subject. Among the pioneers of edgy stand-up comedy " she joked about "putting out" and abortions long before such topics became fodder for female comedians " Rivers was instrumental in paving the way for a generation of funny ladies. "Piece" could have slapped together archival footage, grabbed some obligatory "she's an icon" interviews with Rivers' contemporaries and imitators, and called it a day.

But Rivers is a workhorse, and so is this extraordinary movie. The documentary makers had the distinct advantage of chronicling a tumultuous year in her life, but, then again, the brash 77-year-old comedienne appears to thrive on challenge. She is in constant motion, determined to do whatever she can to reinvent herself " whether that vehicle for a comeback be plastic surgery or competing on "Celebrity Apprentice."

Even if you're not a fan of Rivers, it's hard not to find her compelling. In and out of the limelight over four decades, the actress-turned-comic was such a "Tonight Show" favorite that Johnny Carson made her his permanent guest host. That close friendship crashed when Rivers left to take on her own late-night talk show on Fox.

The new job did not go well. Her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, the show's producer, clashed with network brass. When Rivers refused Fox's insistence that she fire her husband, the network canned the couple. Rosenberg committed suicide, leaving the sudden widow with debts and a career in shambles.

Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg follow Rivers through a grueling year which she previews a one-woman stage play, fires her longtime manager and endures a dizzying schedule of small-town gigs.

Without overt manipulation, they reveal Rivers' complexity with a subtlety that is lacking in Rivers herself. She has a strength seemingly at odds with her need to be loved. Rivers' daughter, Melissa, provides a candid assessment of the insecurity she sees an endemic to most comics: "Laugh at me, laugh with me " just laugh."

The doc does supply a fair amount of laughs. The filmmakers don't linger on the down times, and Rivers is too self-effacing and possesses too much showbiz savvy to indulge in despair. She shows off her file cabinets crammed with 40-plus years of indexed jokes, and she gives viewers a tour of her jaw-droppingly lavish Manhattan penthouse that she says "is how Marie Antoinette would've lived if she'd had money."

The episodic structure mines some wonderfully telling moments. Delivering Thanksgiving meals to hard-luck cases in New York, Rivers meets a onetime avant-garde photographer, Flo Fox, who is now a shut-in. Later that day, Rivers researches her online and comes across an old TV interview of the artist as a young, vibrant woman who had begun succumbing to illness.

"Life is so ... mean," Rivers says, ruefully shaking her head.

It is a statement of genuine compassion, but you also get the impression that Rivers isn't just talking about Flo Fox. --Phil Bacharach

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