June 18, 2010 at 1:00 am

Tom Long Film Review: 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' -- GRADE: B+

Review: 'Piece of Work' an entertaining look at Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers isn't slowing down, with a new documentary out about her and a full schedule of engagements. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" chronicles a year in her life. (Valery Hache / AFP)

America takes Joan Rivers for granted. And why wouldn't it -- she won't go away!

That's the yin and yang of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," the undeniably fascinating and entertaining documentary that looks at the audacious entertainer in the seventy-fifth year of her life. It is a portrait of a woman who refuses to retire, who can't accept irrelevancy and who is desperate for mass attention.

It is also the story of a woman who has broken ground for hundreds of female comics who've ridden in her wake -- yes, Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman, we're all looking at you -- but who's garnered almost no respect as a result.

This probably has something to do with the fact that she's willing to endorse just about anything anyone wants to sell -- not just for the money, understand, but also as a way of keeping her own name in the spotlight. In this manner Rivers, 77, has managed to both promote and undercut herself over a lifetime.

As the year of the documentary begins, Rivers' career is on the skids. She bemoans a calendar filled with blank pages, pages she wishes were filled with TV and radio interviews, concert gigs, her own TV show, whatever.

Then writer-directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (who usually work with more political fare; these aren't celebrity profilers) begin bouncing back and forth between Rivers' extraordinary career and her up-and-down-and-up year.

In historical terms, Rivers is really one of the grand old stand-ups, a late evolver out of the vaudevillian-Borscht Belt comic tradition. It's no coincidence that she and Don Rickles have been performing in concert together for years -- they're cut from the same old-fashioned cloth.

But it's also apparent that Rivers brought -- and still brings -- a shocking amount of Lenny Bruce edginess along with that tradition. She was doing abortion jokes in the '70s -- who's even doing abortion jokes now?

The great kick of this film is its reminder of the blazing speed of this woman's wit; she literally bowls Johnny Carson over with one retort. Few comics have ever been so on.

Except in the here and now of the film, she's pretty off, at least in popularity. She's finishing a play that she'll open in England, and if it's a hit, she'll bring it back to New York. And there's a roast she's dreading that's coming up on Comedy Central where she knows she'll get buried in plastic surgery jokes.

And she and her daughter Melissa have agreed to be on this NBC reality show with Donald Trump, "The Apprentice." She'll probably be kicked off after just a few episodes, but it's face time on prime time network TV, so it's worth it for the exposure.

As it turns out, it's very worth it.

The film's greatest moments, of course, are the least expected. Rivers' longtime manager just disappears halfway through with no explanation. She and her dandied-up grandson deliver a Thanksgiving dinner to a shut-in and the woman turns out to be a formerly hot, cutting-edge photographer now confined to a wheelchair; Rivers is devastated.

And when a heckler at some casino in the boonies yells out that a joke about Helen Keller isn't funny because his son is deaf, Rivers lashes out at him with a fury that's near heartbreaking, as if she's defending a lifetime spent on the edge of bad taste, begging audiences to laugh with her at everything that isn't very funny at all.

"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" finds much to admire in the contradictory soul of its subject, but then it's hard not to. Yes, Joan Rivers is for sale. Why wouldn't she be?

More Tom Long