“He’s a walking stereotype,” Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) says while rehearsing a possible stand-up set alone in her bedroom. “So am I.”
She’s describing the violent, married cop (Chace Crawford) with whom she’s having an affair. He hits her, but in her practice routine, Nina says she doesn’t mind. It helps her stay awake during sex. Dark? Yes. Funny? Not exactly.
Nina doesn’t think so either: she forgoes sharing anything about her real personal life when she takes the stage. Instead, her comedy is entirely impersonal even as it seems tremendously intimate. She talks about period blood and other bodily fluids, generally raunchy material sprinkled liberally with swear words. But Nina and the audience both know that talking about diarrhea isn’t emotional vulnerability; it’s its own mask, aggressive pseudo-familiarity so no one asks anything more personal.
That’s the tension at the heart of All About Nina, the first feature-length film from writer-director Eva Vives. After an accidental confrontation with her cop-paramour’s wife, Nina moves from New York City to Los Angeles in order to audition for fictional SNL-analog Comedy Prime (lorded over by Beau Bridges as Larry “Not Lorne” Michaels). Common appears as a Prince Charming love interest — emphasis on the charming — who shows up and attempts to get to know the real Nina.
Winstead shines as the damaged, defensive title character. It’s a testament to Winstead’s skill (and hopefully, her inevitability as an A-list actor) that for all of Nina’s anger, her vulnerability and her talent comes through, particularly in scenes where we get to see Nina perform impressions ranging from Céline Dion to a spot-on Kristen Stewart.
Unfortunately, the characters in the film never ascend beyond the (self-proclaimed) walking stereotypes. Nina’s Los Angeles roommate is a New Yorker’s favorite Los Angeles stereotype, a bohemian vision in a maxi-dress who volunteers at a cat sanctuary and performs spontaneous acts of reiki; her agent is a heavily pregnant business stock photo too busy shouting into the phone to address being heavily pregnant; and only Winstead’s nuanced performance saves Nina herself from being a heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking poster child for someone who is damaged goods (all that’s missing is Jared Leto’s forehead tattoo as the Joker).
In the final act, a revelatory breakdown on stage reveals that this has been a story about trauma all along, but framing that information as a “reveal” at all means the information is reckoned with on only a surface level. Nina’s abuse then is only understood in that it made her promiscuous, with low-self-esteem, and unwilling or unable to engage in long-term relationships. In other words, the stereotype of an abuse victim.
There are elements in the film that cry out for longer and more thoughtful treatment — Nina’s vomiting after every set, the casual harassment in comedy club atmospheres — but the film seems more interested in following the boy-meets-girl arc of the burgeoning relationship between Nina and Rafe (Common). It will no doubt face comparison to another recent movie about a raunchy female stand-up comedian in a new relationship, Obvious Child, starring Jenny Slate, a comparison that does not fall in Nina’s favor.
All About Nina works best as a showcase for Winstead, even if she’s performing material we’ve already heard before. B