– CHRISTOPHER KELLY

McClatchy Newspapers

Razor-sharp social satirist or over-the-top loudmouth? Plastic surgery freak or glamorous old-school diva? Hilarious or desperately unfunny?

Regardless of what you think of the legendary comic Joan Rivers, the new documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” lives up to its title — it’s one of the best movies ever made about the brutal and unforgiving world of show business, and what it takes to survive in it for decades.

The movie shows us Rivers, now in her mid-70s, scrambling for gigs, scurrying around the country, trying not to lose the spotlight to the likes of female comics like Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin, but inevitably losing that spotlight all the same. The portrait that emerges is both inspiring (the comedienne intends to perform until her dying day), and a little bit heartbreaking: What is it about the entertainment industry that makes it impossible for people like Rivers to ever find inner peace?

Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, making a 180-degree turn from their previous effort, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” about the genocide in Darfur, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” follows its subject around the globe for more than a year, from dumpy comedy clubs in Wisconsin to the West End stage in London, where Rivers is trying to mount an autobiographical, one-woman show.

It might have been a standard celebrity puff-job, but Rivers has given the filmmakers complete access, which results in dozens of completely arresting moments: The opening credit sequence finds the comedienne without make-up, worn-looking and pale, painstakingly putting together her public face. If the images almost suggest a soldier readying for battle, that’s entirely the point. For Rivers, show business is a war waged daily, against youth-chasing executives, fickle audiences and the cynical media.

Over the course of the film’s brisk, 84-minute running time, Stern and Sundberg touch on all the highlights and lowlights of Rivers career, from her glass ceiling-shattering appearances on “The Tonight Show,” to her falling out with Johnny Carson, to her husband’s Edgar’s suicide following the failure of Rivers’ talk show on Fox.

One of the things that makes the movie so compelling is that Rivers doesn’t put on a performance, in the manner of most celebrities being interviewed by journalists. Decades later, she still feels rage and sadness toward both Carson and her late husband, and she allows us to share in those feelings.

The movie’s other amazing feat is that it shows us a comic in her element, reacting and reinventing herself on a dime. At one point, we watch as Rivers delivers a throwaway joke about Helen Keller, which offends one audience member, who loudly objects to her mocking deaf children.

The interruption, however, doesn’t destroy the performer’s momentum. Instead, she confronts this man, angrily and bitingly, insisting to him that the very point of comedy is to laugh at the most morose tragedy — how could anyone possibly get through life otherwise?

This is as good as documentary filmmaking gets, economical and deeply penetrating. With just a single, eye-opening sequence, Stern and Sundberg show us Joan Rivers’ entire career in microcosm: A defiant and brazen performer, still fighting after all these years for the right to make a joke.

REVIEW

“JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK,” Stars Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers and Kathy Griffin. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. Rated R for language and sexual humor. Running time: 1:24

Opening at: