Joan Rivers, alone on a club stage, informs us that 1987 wasn’t a good year.
Quickly enough, we see 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 suicide loss of a father and husband and the mess left for his loved ones to clean up.
This is not a H’wood 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. Like most other women’s movies, pockets of melodrama abound, but Susan Rice’s script and Oz Scott’s direction are focused and 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, show business contacts (Joan lands a role in a Neil Simon Broadway play) and Melissa’s Ivy League world tend to soften our 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) veer the pic 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.