Contemporary audiences may have known comedian Joan Rivers from her time on “The Tonight Show,” her stand-up act and comedy albums, or her time as a fashion commentator.
But the 2010 documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” which was co-directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg of “The End of America” and “Let Them Wear Towels,” provided a closer examination of the comedienne’s life, earning praise for being a “revelation” and “fascinating.” The film was mostly well-received by critics and currently holds a score of 79 out of 100 on the review aggregator website Metacritic.
Monitor film critic Peter Rainer awarded the movie a B, writing of Rivers' inspiration for comedy, "Maybe anger and happiness mean the same thing to her. After all... in the film she declares, 'I'm furious about everything. Anger fuels the comedy.'" New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote that after watching it, she wondered, “Joan Rivers, where have you been all my life?" Peter Travers of Rolling Stone noted, “For those who know Rivers only from her red-carpet interviews, this doc will be a revelation” and wrote of Rivers’ personal life, as depicted in the film, “Despite her unshakable bond with daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper, Rivers allows us to see the loneliness that seeps in around the edges of her life. As ever, she laughs it off. Self-pity is a no-no… Her wit cuts as sharp as one of her diamonds, her observations as acute and timely as those of Jon Stewart and Sacha Baron Cohen. Rivers' renegade spirit animates this movie. There's not a timid, sympathy-begging minute in it. Even better, you leave ‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’ with the exhilarating feeling that the lady is just hitting her stride.”
Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman also added his own praise, awarding the movie an A grade and writing that it’s “fascinating… rip-roaring… She's a teller of hilarious gutbucket truths as surely as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor ever were,” and Ty Burr of the Boston Globe found the movie to be “unexpectedly touching." Los Angeles Times reviewer Betsy Sharkey wrote that “the filmmakers prove adept at exposing her reality.”
In addition, critics noted that the documentary is simply fun to watch, too, with Dargis calling it “convulsively funny” and Travers writing that it’s “profanely hilarious.”