Filmed in Vancouver by Davis Entertainment. Executive producers, John Davis, Merrill Karpf; producers, Tom Rowe, George Horie; director, Oz Scott; writer, Susan Rice; Joan Rivers, alone on a club stage, deadpans into a mike that 1987 hadn't been a very good year.

Filmed in Vancouver by Davis Entertainment. Executive producers, John Davis, Merrill Karpf; producers, Tom Rowe, George Horie; director, Oz Scott; writer, Susan Rice; Joan Rivers, alone on a club stage, deadpans into a mike that 1987 hadn’t been a very good year.

Quickly enough, we learn or are reminded why not: She was stung by Johnny Carson, had her talkshow canceled by Fox, was widowed by her husband Edgar’s suicide, dumped by her agency and trashed for trying to turn grief into humor before an allotted mourning period had lapsed. Joan Rivers, it develops, dramatizes her story surprisingly well.

Let the cynics bewail the audacity of it all. But who better to play Joan Rivers than Joan Rivers? And that’s not to mention her daughter, Melissa, who also plays herself in a genuine donnybrook of mother-daughter carnage.

Whether it was nerve or ego that prompted this bearing of family souls makes little difference. The result is curiously absorbing. Initially, that’s because this is Joan and her daughter there on the tube, but gradually the movie succeeds because it’s about something bigger than its stars. It’s a subject with resonance — the adjustment to the shocking loss, not to mention suicide, of a father and husband.

This is not a Hollywood industry story, despite the trappings, so much as a story of a working mom and a coed daughter who can’t stand each other, and of the honest unraveling of the reasons why. Pockets of melodrama abound, but Susan Rice’s script and Oz Scott’s direction are sufficiently focused and reined-in to avoid gushy pitfalls.

The show’s monied atmosphere is richly mirrored by cameraman David Geddes, but it’s also one of the production’s problems. Joan and Melissa’s lavish house, gorgeous outfits, showbiz contacts (Joan lands a role in a Neil Simon Broadway play) and Melissa’s Ivy League world soften the viewer’s sense of their pain.

But the mother-daughter battles and, notably, Melissa’s abusive relationship at the University of Pennsylvania with a snobbish cokehead boyfriend (the convincing Mark Kiely) continually veer the movie onto firm dramatic ground.

Structurally, pic is crisp, framed by a Joan Rivers’ monologue, and both stars respectably negotiate these treacherous autobiographical rapids leading to the inevitable reconciliation. In fact, the only character (besides Melissa’s callow boyfriend) who doesn’t come off well is Edgar Rosenberg, the unseen husband and father. Given no background on the man, his suicide looks weak and selfish.

In any event, under the opening credits his death is suggested cogently by teasing tight shots of his hands and arms putting things in order before indulging the big chill (pun intended) in a hotel room across the country.

Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story

Production

NBC, Sun., May 15, 9 p.m.

Crew

Camera, David Geddes; editor, Duane Hartzell; production design, Chris August; music, Harold Wheeler; sound, Mark Holden; costumes, David Dangle, Karen L. Matthews. 120 MIN.

With

Cast: Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Dorothy Lyman, Mark Kiely, Jon Kean, Denis Arndt, Sheila Moore, Ken Kramer, Jay Brazeau, Matthew Bennett, Don MacKay, Roger Allford, Rebecca Toolan, Jerry Wasserman, Tasha Simms, Kevin McNulty, L. Harvey Gold, Lossen Chambers, Charles Siegel, Tegan Moss, Samantha McKenna, Lalainia Lindbjerg, Tom Davidson, Richel Wood.

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