Rivers women's movie is too personal to watch

May 14, 1994|By David Bianculli | David Bianculli,New York Daily News

Can we talk? I mean truly talk, without any cheap shots or toss-away one-liners?

Presuming we can, here's what I have to say, especially to Joan Rivers, about "Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story," NBC's Sunday-night movie (at 9 on WMAR, Channel 2) in which the entertainer and her daughter play themselves in a docudrama about their private lives and personal relationships.

This was not an enjoyable TV movie to watch. Given what it tried to do, you have to wonder whether it should have been made at all.

As an entry in the I-gotta-be-me genre of celebrities portraying themselves or their families, "Tears and Laughter" is not as bad as "Side by Side: The True Story of the Osmonds," not as good as "Ann Jillian: My Story," and not as strange as Shirley MacLaine's "Out on a Limb."

But since the story begins the night that Edgar Rosenberg, the comedian's husband and Melissa Rivers' father, committed suicide, there's a pall over this production that proves too overwhelming to overcome.

Writer Susan Rice does leave some areas of privacy behind closed doors: We never see Rosenberg (except for his hands), and we're denied the opportunity to listen to the audiotaped messages he left behind for his wife and daughter.

But other intensely personal moments are re-enacted, and having the people involved play themselves after the fact adds not to the drama, but to a feeling of uncomfortable artificiality. Even in the show's best scene, when mother and daughter are examining and commenting upon the contents of a suitcase left behind by Rosenberg, the elder Rivers' reaction is less credible than the younger one's, and the illusion collapses.

"Maybe if I'd been nicer to him," Joan says at one point, "he'd be here now."

Melissa, after blaming her mother for most of the movie, reverses course and says, "It was Daddy. He took away our family."

And, along the way to the reconciliation between mother and daughter, there are shots at Joan's former agent, Melissa's former boyfriend, and even at Johnny Carson ("Johnny Carson made you a villain," Joan is told).

"Honestly, mother," Melissa asks her mother, "do you need to be such a drama queen? Do you need to turn everything into a soap opera?"

Good question -- and the answer, apparently, is yes.

I do not question that these events and emotions were genuine, and certainly do not question the pain these Rivers women went through to arrive at the point where they could comfortably and proudly tell the story.

But it didn't need to be told, didn't need to star them in a story this personal, and certainly doesn't need to be seen.

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