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Originally published Thursday, June 17, 2010 at 7:08 PM

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Movie review

'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work': a revealing portrait of a funny, tough, vulnerable woman

A review of the funny, revealing documentary, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,' a documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. 84 minutes. Rated R for language and sexual humor. Harvard Exit.

"Don't you tell me what's funny!" comedian Joan Rivers rages at a heckler at a Wisconsin casino gig, in the revealing documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." "Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with it!" she says passionately, flying away from her rehearsed shtick and into something that seems, however briefly, to be coming from the heart. "If we didn't laugh, where the hell would we be?"

It's a question that Rivers, who in her mid-70s still works tirelessly on vast stages and tiny comedy clubs, has probably often asked herself, in a long career that has mingled laughs with tragedy and wildly up-and-down fortunes. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg followed her around for a year to make this film, which reveals Rivers as a hands-on businesswoman, a loving grandmother, a lonely widow (her husband committed suicide in 1987), a frustrated actress, a generous employer, a showy decorator (her insanely gilded New York apartment, she says, is "how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had had money"), a vulnerable kvetcher and a born comedian who's only truly happy on stage, shouting out the frequently tasteless yet perfectly timed barbs that are her trademark.

Because yes, she's funny (just listen to the capper to her Wisconsin diatribe) and laughter seems to be what's gotten her through her darker days — that, and the kind of pragmatism that lets her sit smiling as a parade of comedians tell mean-spirited plastic- surgery jokes about her on a Comedy Central roast. (Why'd she agree to the roast? For the money. And because, well, those who dish it out need, sometimes, to take it.) By the end of Stern and Sundberg's portrait, you feel a great fondness for this tough cookie, who says she plans for her career to outlast George Burns' — who was still working in his mid-90s. Over the end credits, Rivers jokes that the filmmakers were hoping for her to die, so that the film would document her final year. "I'd watch that movie!" she says. And she laughs, and so do we.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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