Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's itchy, intimate documentary begins exactly where it should: on Joan Rivers's 75-year-old, extravagantly plasticized face, here shown in tight close-up, without makeup. After a stark couple of seconds, Rivers's makeup artist gets to work, and when makeup's done, so does Rivers, setting in motion this fascinating film tracking a year in the life of the acid-tongued comedy legend.
From the start, it's a bumpy ride—Rivers wouldn't have it any other way. A certifiable workaholic, Rivers plies her trade like a hungry up-and-comer, agonizing over blank spaces in her date book and hustling like someone on the verge of starvation. Only after we see the inside of her literally palatial New York town house do the facts click into place: Here is a fabulously wealthy, elderly woman who does not feel alive unless she's cracking wise in front of an audience.
Incorporating archival footage into the yearlong video diary, the filmmakers do right by Rivers's formidable comic legacy as a fearless, incomparably ambitious woman thrusting herself into the overwhelmingly male world of standup. (Her career-altering relationship with Johnny Carson, who made her a star before shunning her as a competitor, is tracked in all its mindfucky glory.) But the film, like Rivers's life, is all about forward motion—the next gig, the next laugh, the next humiliation en route to a paycheck. (See her Comedy Central roast, here presented as a lucrative, fully legal torture session.) What sticks with you is the depth of Rivers's creative compulsion: So great is her need to perform, that she'll get her fix wherever she can, from run-down New York nightclubs to The Celebrity Apprentice. It's an amazing, exhausting thing to behold.