[originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]
The Secular and the Sublime
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” begins with a close-up of Ms. Rivers sans make-up. It announces what’s coming — an unstinting, sometimes distressing, look at the inner workings of precisely what makes the hardest working woman in America tick. Note the present tense. She avidly cultivates a relentless schedule that would make twenty-somethings flinch. She admits she lives “the way Marie Antoinette would if she had had money.” And yet there are never enough baubles to signal an end to Ms. Rivers’ work. This new film, among other things, shows us how careers operate when they’re wedded to one’s deepest love. Unlikely as it seems, “A Piece of Work” unfolds as a love story. It becomes obvious that Ms. Rivers is clenched in a relationship with the stage — and that’s the result of her own psychic need and its twin rewards of heaping money and wrenching distress. As an example, she chooses to endure a hideously brutal celebrity roast for… money. Her manager notes “she lives like the Queen of England” and, yet, the coffers are always yawning, waiting for yet another load of cash, no matter what the psychological cost.
Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, known for riveting documentaries that include coverage of the genocide in Darfur, headed a crew that was given complete access to Ms. Rivers and her entourage for fourteen months. It’s extraordinary how close they were with their subject matter. Literally. Note the aforementioned close-up of the well-documented surgically altered face. It shows us veined and blotchy skin and over-plucked eyebrows. With the aid of generously applied makeup, this painfully raw visage gradually morphs into the legendary persona recognized by most everyone on the planet since her early days of performing on the Carson show. She emerges looking like her Upper East-side self and ready to plead for bookings at less than palatial halls of comedy.
When asked to check her calendar she says, “Let me get my sunglasses.” Like every other painful thing in her life, it’s transformed into a comedy routine. The glare of the empty, white pages isn’t mere pain or panic; it’s fodder for the comedic mill. Of course she can afford to quit. But one begins to believe she’s unable to. She’s locked in the anonymous embrace of paid audiences who laugh with her — and at her. As her daughter, Melissa, notes, it’s the lucrative form of making a living that falls to the deeply injured.
And, to touch on a more than mildly delicate subject, the film becomes one vector into Judaism via Ms. Rivers’ readily admitted role as team player in the genre of a stereotypical money-mad workaholic. With all of its oddities, I find that laudable. She’s clearly grateful to be “chosen” and she says so in a Thanksgiving prayer. She also lets us know she says, “Thank you, God” every time she sets foot in a limo. The woman is clearly grateful for the ability and opportunity to work and to perform and to make us laugh. And laugh you will. Even when you feel you shouldn’t. Therein lies her genius. Nothing is off limits. Not her husband’s suicide; not sex over the age of 60; not her own less-than ravishing looks. And regarding the Jewish-ness of this intimate study, her funniest lines come delivered with a perfectly rendered German accent or comments about Mel Gibson herding Jews into train cars. This shouldn’t be funny. Should it? But it is. She robs horror of its impact by making us do that most human thing of all—laugh. It’s a trick older than Aristophanes.
Her façade opens most widely, however, when she talks about the past and the people left with whom she can share memories. She’s tearful and it’s not only touching to watch—one begins to realize the woman is a hero. She’s still performing, still opening professional doors for women and, now, older women. And that’s no small feat. She’s crass. She’s “in your face” and she’s beautiful. Ms. Rivers’ remarked that no man had ever told her she’s beautiful. They were wrong. They were just not giving her the admiring gaze she so richly deserves. Maybe this film will put things in perspective. After all, secular humor can be quite sublime.
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I suspect Holy Rollers is an attempt to let us peer into the machinations of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community and see how lovely a life of familial ties and rigidity can be. But it just doesn’t work that way. In fact, if you think the life of a Hasidic Jew sounds exciting, just wait until you see the movie. It’s searingly, numbingly boring. Here’s the synopsis: semi-schmaltzy young boy goes wrong by becoming a drug dealer and it’s really, really hard to care. This is surprising for me because, oddly enough, I’ve been a fan of this (admittedly arcane) subject matter since I discovered Chaim Potok in seventh grade. Not to mention Brooklyn at a later, more interesting, phase of my life while exploring Manhattan and its environs. I was looking forward to this film. But, Lo unto us all, it’s a mammoth bust.
Jesse Eisenberg plays the young Hasid who goes astray. He acts the part well enough but we’re never instilled with a high-pitched fervor that makes us long for him to return to his family and seedy, homespun life. In fact, when he careens into secular terrain of drug running and vaguely sexy-druggy-dancing, I’m not aghast. I simply don’t care. Never mind that it’s a true story. Big deal.
It could have been a wonderful drama—but we’d have to like the characters more and care whether they live, die or continue to wad themselves up in leather gear to maniacally engage in rituals of the tribe. This could have been great. It wasn’t. Not even close. If you want an interesting outing with Hasids, I suggest you head for Paris and wander around in Le Marais. It’s more expensive but worth it.