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Ozark Gothic

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For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer, and Winter’s Bone is the year’s most stirring film.

How can anyone watch Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s car-crash-compelling Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and not be conflicted about its subject, by turns desperately funny and unfunnily desperate? I cringed when it opened on the 75-year-old comedian as she made up her already-plasticized features, then entered a small, cruddy-looking club and bemoaning (to the audience!) that she’s ended up there after 40 years in showbiz. But then she launched into a wildly profane put-down of her own red-carpet-awards shtick, and I was, I swear, ready to be her slave. Her patter onstage is surreal; it’s like falling into a vortex of Jewish female self-affirming self-hatred. All these years of seeing her on TV (plus an eye-opening profile in this magazine two weeks ago) and I never knew she worked this blue, that she had this much Lenny Bruce in her. Then the filmmakers follow her offstage and she holds up her mostly empty calendar, with so much white she says she has to put on sunglasses before she opens it, and it’s clear that without the bookings, she’s on the brink of nonexistence. And this is with two terrific filmmakers training their cameras on her. Imagine her by herself.

There is no self. Did you see pictures of the sinkhole in Guatemala? That’s the size of the hole that can never be filled, no matter how much collagen she pours into it. She is entirely other-directed. She rehearses an autobiographical play in London, and all she can talk about is the reviews, the reviews—the reviews that will give her life or kill her. I’m hesitant to review her now; I don’t want that much power. But the movie is so potent. I was a white-knuckle mess over whether she’d get back on top. Her only daughter, Melissa, says she had a sibling: “the career.” That’s what it was called: the career. When Joan’s husband failed the career (the Fox late-night show he produced bombed), he killed himself. The career has been on life-support. She says she hates when young female comics say, “ ‘You opened the doors’: Go fuck yourself. I still open the doors.”

Stern and Sundberg omit one huge motif: her infamous, appalling, often hilarious Elizabeth Taylor fat-disparaging phase. She couldn’t resist going after someone who’d once set a standard of beauty that Rivers could never begin to meet—and who behaved with un-Jewish childlike passivity as the pounds accumulated. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly exhilarating, thoroughly depressing portrait of the agony and ecstasy of celebrity. Watch that calendar fill up.

Once in a while a comedy comes along in which you’re not sure, for a long time, that it actually is a comedy. But then the details begin to accumulate, the characters take hold, you lock into the director’s rhythms, and, voilà, you surprise yourself by how hard you’re laughing. That’s what happens in Agnès Jaoui’s Let It Rain, the story of a hotel clerk (brilliant little Jamel Debbouze) and an insecure blowhard failed reporter (Jaoui’s co-writer, Jean-Pierre Bacri) who team up to make a documentary about a “strong woman” politician, played by Jaoui, who has alienated almost everyone in her life with her ambition—especially her redheaded sister (Pascale Arbillot), who’s embroiled in an affair with the dimwit journalist. It takes a half-hour to sort these and other characters out before their various agendas begin to collide, the rain comes, and you see the tragedy of everyone’s lives—until, this being a comedy, the sun comes back out and the sadness ebbs. This wistful little film is at just the right temperature.

Winter’s Bone
Roadside Attractions. R.

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work
IFC Films. R.

Let It Rain
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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