Double Feature — Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work & The Kids Are All Right 

[Last night I saw a documentary about Joan Rivers. Tonight I watched a movie about being raised by two moms. I also downloaded (and am really enjoying) Robyn’s new album. I figure tomorrow I’ll come straight out of the closet and be done with it.]

I enjoyed A Piece of Work way too much. One of the many revelations, to me anyway, in this short (84 minutes) documentary was that Rivers was (and still is) very funny. She is a brash, often-confrontational comic. (The opening five minutes is a firestorm of curse words delivered during a stand-up routine. “Cunt,” rather shockingly, is screamed moments before the title card appears on screen.) She does what George Carlin advised all good comics to do: find out where the line is drawn, and deliberately cross it. The movie contains a good amount of footage of her stand-up act from the 70’s through today. (The opening “cunt”-containing routine was very recent.) The movie paints a fairly sympathetic picture of Rivers, someone who I’d really only known from awards pre-shows and the TV Guide Channel. We’re told, among many other things, the tragic story of her marriage, and shown throughout her maniacal drive to always be working, even at 75 years old. Her apartment is lavish, and I’m guessing if she retired today she’d be able to sustain herself and her family and her philanthropic endeavors. But she feels as though she can’t retire. She can’t sit still!

This compulsivity manifests itself, most heartbreakingly, in her acceptance to be roasted on Comedy Central. In the taxi on the way to the event she tears up, saying that she knows only the most hurtful and offensive jokes will be made about her and her career and her plastic surgery. But the money’s unbelievable, so she goes through with it. It’s an interesting and revealing section of a movie filled with scenes of Rivers telling, mostly, hurtful and offensive jokes. (In one scene Rivers tells a Helen Keller joke, and is heckled by someone who claims to have a deaf son. She responds by furiously yelling at the man, calling him an “idiot,” and telling him that people need to lighten up and laugh more, that we need to make jokes in order to make life bearable.)

There are other moments where Rivers shows herself to be a mostly-sad person: she claims to have never been called “beautiful;” in response to a question about her plastic surgery, she says “I just want to be loved;” crying after she’s forced to fire her manager of 30 years, her last link to the past, because of his unpredictability. Besides Joan, there are only a few other people interviewed in the film. Her daughter Melissa, who scarily looks like she’s received plastic surgery of her own, offers a few surprisingly wise words about comics in general: “All stand-ups are inherently insecure. Who else would go up on a stage and ask people to laugh at them?” All in all, A Piece of Work ended up becoming my new favorite documentary released this year. (My former favorite, The Lottery, has dipped on my list since recent news stories have reported that a shocking number of charter schools, which the movie passionately argues for, are really no more effective than public schools.)

[Full Disclosure: I went into The Kids Are All Right with a grudge. Last summer I wrote an outline for a movie about a boy born and raised by two lesbian moms. In my movie, the boy spent his time looking for his biological father, the unknown man whose sperm was implanted in his birth mom. So it was a little like the basic plot of The Kids Are All Right, except that my outline also contained a plot involving a mixed CD with the magical power to bring the songs it contained to life. (The boy’s birth father owned a record store, The Music Box, which the movie was named after.) There were 9 or so elaborate song and dance numbers. Super gay. But the gist of it was a lot like what The Kids Are All Right marketed itself to be: a movie about searching for and meeting arguably the most important person of your life, and the self-understanding that does or doesn’t come with that discovery.]

First off, I can’t remember the last cast that impressed me this much. Every actor gives a really great performance here, with Annette Bening being the stand-out, due in part to how interesting her character was. The family chemistry was incredible, especially considering the unconventional two lead roles. Luckily, these performances were not wasted, as this movie had some of the richest characters I’ve seen at the movies this year.

Their richness is a product of all the relationships the film presents and balances: mother-mother, mothers-son, mothers-daughter, mothers-donor, kids-donor, daughter-friends, son-friend. And then of course there’s the fractured inner relationship each character has with their own selves, most obviously Julianne Moore’s sexually-conflicted Jules. Each of these relationships are written very well, and each say something about the difficulties of being able to connect (and nourish that connection) with another person in a meaningful way.

There are also moments or entire story-lines handled with great subtlety. The son (Laser) and his friend’s story-line was particularly subtle. Laser’s friend Clay is a total bro, aggressively masculine; he skateboards, says “fag” a lot, and, upon seeing a stray dog, almost instinctively threatens to whip his dick out and pee on it. Clay’s machismo, then, is sort of a supplement for the father Laser never had, and their indefensible friendship (Clay is such a tool) reveals a key insecurity of Laser (discomfort with his own masculinity), which is made clearer by his yearning to meet his birth father, a male figure he could perhaps model himself after. I bet a second viewing would reveal more and more psychological depth to each of the movie’s main characters. (Especially Mark Ruffalo’s Paul, who seems underdeveloped but is actually rather interesting upon examination. He’s something of a casanova, but he works in a garden, a workplace that, to me at least, contrasts sharply with the motorcycle he rides.)

Also welcome was the way the two-mom family was represented. It did a great job of showing that gay relationships are like straight relationships in the most important way: they’re imperfect. The best result of this accurate depiction was that Moore and Bening’s relationship isn’t played up for novelty. There are struggles in The Kids Are All Right’s central gay relationship that would fit comfortably in any straight relationship drama. Positioning them in the context of a two-mom home just makes them more interesting, gives them a slant that we don’t often see at the movies.  Every scene had a very natural feel to it, aided in equal parts by the script, which seemed at times to take moments and sentiments (“I sometimes mistake silence for criticism”) from my own family life, and the performances, which were downright mumblecore-ian (in terms of uncomfortableness, not quirkiness or disaffection) in some instances.

It was also very funny, though not riotously, like A Piece of Work often was. The humor here, like the story, felt organic and understated. Also understated: the clean, straightforward cinematography, which was consistently pleasant but not distractingly so. In the end, I found The Kids Are All Right to be an absorbing and honest study of the human heart’s longing for company, and the challenges and complexities of platonic and familial and romantic love.

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