The word is thrown around lightly nowadays but few people in the entertainment industry can be considered "survivors". Joan Rivers would be one of these people and as this clever documentary shows us, she's not just the loud mouthed, plastic surgery freak who disses red carpet dresses...she's the loud mouthed, plastic surgery freak who has survived forty years in the business and is still around.
A multi-talented performer, Rivers confesses she's only happy when she's onstage after she had revealed previously she never really wanted to do comedy and it's this kind of revelation which makes the movie such a refreshing entertainment.
As with any so called non fiction film you are left wondering what's "real" and what's staged yet the truth is that regardless of this issue, the film is superb entertainment. It makes you laugh, can move you to tears and sometimes even borders on something similar to enlightenment.
Fans of Joan will probably be thrilled to see her during her most intimate moments, people who don't know about her will leave the theater exhilarated and wanting to YouTube the hell out of her (even she does this in one scene showing her need to be up to date in technological advancements) and those who dislike her probably won't be converted but as a story about growing old this documentary can't hide its wisdom, even if it's usually covered in glitter.
After the strangely optimistic Happy-Go-Lucky it would've been easy to assume that Mike Leigh's next movie would possess the same sort of joie de vivre he seemed to have just discovered; however Another Year is instead an elegiac look at coming to terms with the deep dissatisfaction and regrets some might face as they become old.
The film, which is divided into four chapters (one for each season) shows us with situations peripheral to Tom (Broadbent) and Gerri (Sheen), a married couple who have to deal with their friends, their son (Maltman) and themselves.
The film consists of vignettes where we see these people interact and we begin to get to know them in a way. The movie is one of those where "nothing happens" and it becomes more of an intimate character study as we see how people around Tom and Gerry seem to be unhappy, while they appear to be rather content with their lives. We often see these people in private situations yet Leigh allows us to feel invited, his technical work is never intrusive.
Sheen and Broadbent both share very sweet personalities that make it easy for us to understand why the people around them, and the movie, have chosen them as a sort of moral center.
Perhaps the most interesting character around them is their friend Mary (Manville), an insecure divorced woman who fears aging without a partner.
Several scenes concentrate on Mary and her restless appeals to find someone to be with. Whether it's with Tom and Gerri or their son Joe, Mary seems terrified of being left on her own. She is played with fearlessness by Manville who doesn't seem to mind how obnoxious and pathetic Mary can become. Several scenes have her portraying some of the worst things about humans, yet Manville is so committed to her character and so devoid of any vanity that you can't help but feel, or at least try to feel for Mary.
Her last scene is a thing of heartbreaking beauty and makes everything that preceded it shine under a different light. Leigh's ability to take us from one emotion to another and in the process transform his movie from depressing to poignant, make this movie a truly bittersweet experience.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work ***
Another Year ***