This is one of the most depressing movies ever made – which is odd, considering it is a documentary about a comedian.  And depending on your tastes, Joan Rivers is an extremely funny comedian.

So why is this film so depressing?  Well, there are two reasons.  First, Rivers comes across as a monster of self-pity.  Wallowing in insecurity and a constant fear of losing her stardom, she seems utterly unaware that she has been among the most successful stand-up performers of our times.  With a lavish Manhattan apartment, a limousine and chauffeur, and a staff whose livelihood is supported by her star power, the 77-year-old Rivers is among the very few comedians who has been able to stay on camera, snag book deals, and fill large venues for more than four decades.

Rivers snarls that she was never supported by the critics, claiming that they have refused to take her seriously as an actress.  Oh?  It seems that both the star and the creators of this documentary forgot about her well-regarded dramatic supporting role in the 1968 film “The Swimmer” starring Burt Lancaster, her well-received 1988 performance in Neil Simon’s New York stage production of “Broadway Bound,” and the Tony Award and Drama Desk nominations she received for her 1994 play “Sally Marr and Her Escorts.” If she wanted critical acclaim, perhaps Rivers should have actually bothered to pursue a real acting career instead of shilling cheap jewelry and making fun of well-dressed stars at award ceremonies?

Second, this is one of the sloppiest researched biographical documentaries I’ve seen in ages. Among the items missing from her life story: Rivers’ first marriage to James Sanger (which lasted six months in the 1950s), her brief attempt at Off-Broadway theater in the early 1960s (including a role in the play “Seawood” opposite another unknown named Barbra Streisand), her successful books and comedy albums, her many years of highly rated guest appearances on variety programs and game shows, her work as the director and writer of the critically slammed but commercially successful 1978 comedy film “Rabbit Test” and her five-year run as the host of a highly successful daytime talk show (the film only focuses on her disastrous late-night talk show on the nascent Fox network).  Instead, Rivers is constantly whining about a life-long fear of being considered an irrelevant has-been. Huh?

Seriously, I wish that I had her money and her career! You’d see a biographic documentary about a damn happy person, not some chronic whiner who is crying all the way to the bank.

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  1. Creative Khaos says:

    This isn’t a review, it’s a personal opinion piece. Half of it is “reviewing” how you feel about Joan Rivers rather than the actual film and the other half is you complaining it wasn’t the type of movie you wanted to see. This wasn’t a life biography but a glimpse, and an interesting one, into the life of a very troubled, smart, funny, and tragic woman.

  2. F. Kidd says:

    Joan Rivers is the badest (curse word) ever! And I don’t think she’d mine me calling her that word. I absolutely adored the doc. It was honest and funny. As has been previously pointed out, they had to condense her life’s work into 84 minutes, and they nailed it.

    When she questioned her staff if she should tell a joke about the 1st lady, and they gave their feedback–Rivers did not use the joke.

    Rock on Rivers.

  3. Odochi says:

    You have no clue how to review a movie. It wasn’t supposed to be a play-by-play chronologically correct documentary; it was meant to get a glimpse at a year in the life of Joan Rivers. I thought it was fantastic: honest, funny and encouraging. It was great to see how hard she works and the drive that has kept her in the business for so long. Well done!

  4. Amy R Handler says:

    Nice review, Phil! I’m not a fan of Ms. Rivers but figured I should see the film to be fair. I found the doc not only incomplete but extremely slanted. I also cringed at the Helen Keller jokes and Joan’s retort to an offended person that he was an “a*****e.” If that’s brilliance, I guess I’m missing something.

  5. Jame_G. says:

    I’m really truly a converted fan of Joan. I saw her movie a few days ago and it completely changed the way that I see her, as a performer and a person. I’d have to say that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen, documentary or otherwise.

  6. Phil Hall says:

    I should also add that Minnie Pearl was doing stand-up comedy on the Grand Ol’ Opry for years before Diller or Rivers. We never really think of her as a stand-up comic, but she was.

  7. Phil Hall says:

    Phyllis Diller was established as a comic before Rivers hit it big. Before them was Moms Mabley, although she was virtually unknown to white audiences until the 1960s. A female comic peer of Rivers’ who was actually much, much funnier (and who is not mentioned in the film) was Totie Fields. But she died in 1978 and is barely remembered today.

  8. Phil Hall, you just inspired a thought. Rivers can be considered a pioneer woman in stand-up comedy; I’m pretty sure she was there before Phyllis Diller. Is her lack of contact with other women in comedy unusual? Male comedians are often jealous of their peers. Is she more or less like that?

    And mind you, we’re talking stand-up comedians. Not comic actors or improv performers, who are expected to work together.

  9. Phil Hall says:

    Chucky: the film actually covers a good chunk of Rivers’ career, complete with old footage from her work on TV in the 60s and 70s. But the film is highly selective in what it chooses – it misses a lot of career highs and seems to dwell on Rivers’ stumbles, which makes her seem like she was always flirting with oblivion (which is blatantly false).

    Andrew: Sarah is not mentioned in the film, which is interesting since Rivers only fixates on Kathy Griffin as the top female comic today. I don’t know if Rivers even knows who Sarah Silverman is!

  10. Andrew S says:

    I haven’t seen the film yet, so I can’t personally attest to it’s quality, but I recently heard Sarah Silverman on another comedian’s podcast, (Jimmy Pardo’s ‘Never Not Funny’) and they were both gushing about the movie and it’s accuracy in depicting the life of a working comedian.

  11. chucky s. says:

    This isn’t a film review. Regarding a film as “careless and sloppy” because it does not include every fact about its subject is foolish. The film was not a bio-pic – more a depiction of Joan Rivers right now, a year in her life.
    It seems that you missed this point.

  12. Mark Bell says:

    I wasn’t too fond of Joan Rivers after watching her behavior on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

  13. Phil Hall says:

    Rivers is credited as a co-writer on “The Girl Most Likely To…” But that film is not mentioned in this new documentary — another example of the careless and sloppy presentation.

  14. “Depending on your taste” is the kindest thing that could be said about Rivers’s comedy. My ex talked me into seeing her act when I was in Vegas in the 1970’s. Her act was bitching about any female that was more attractive than she was, climaxed by her picking up a stand-up picture of a bikini’ed Cher, who was appearing elsewhere on the Strip. It was a painful evening for me.

    I also remember her TV-movie The Girl Most Likely To… in which an ugly teen becomes pretty and kills off everyone who ever insulted her, in not-very-funny ways. The comedy of Rivers has always been based on cruelty and backbiting, but in this film and her Rabbit Test it boiled over. While this film will be a pain to watch, it sounds like it will be the needed lancing of a huge, infected boil.

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