Comedians often times wring laughter from the fundamental truths they experience in their own lives. What makes Nina, the central character in Eva Vives’ first film “All About Nina,” so interesting is that she’s able to be brutally honest on stage, but struggles to be as open in a relationship. “All About Nina” works well as an adult romantic comedy, a female perspective on the comedy world, and a star vehicle for Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Nina (Winstead) careens through life with little tethering her to the ground. She performs comedy by night and entertains men entirely wrong for her by late at night. After a harrowing incident with an abusive cop (Chace Crawford), Nina picks up and moves to Los Angeles. As part of the move, she gets a chance to audition for Comedy Prime, the premier national sketch show. As she puts her act together, she meets Rafe (Common), a sexy contractor who might just be her first shot at a serious relationship.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, one of our most underrated dramatic actresses, turns in another stellar performance. Nina so easily could have careened into histrionics and broad strokes. Instead, Winstead delights in fully sketching out Nina’s rough edges. There’s a gleeful, unapologetic streak to the character that makes her stand out from the crowd. The story takes Nina down many dark paths, all of which Winstead nails. However, we’ve known she can do complex drama. What pushes her boundaries are the comedy scenes. Winstead lands all of Nina’s stand up acts, recalling Jenny Slate’s great “Obvious Child” performance. Her centerpiece routine blends acidic comedy with heart-wrenching drama so effectively. Winstead walks a tightrope of tone and never falls off. The film’s small release makes it unlikely Winstead will make it to the Oscars. However, her performance should gain critic notices and, rightfully, show up at the Indie Spirit Awards.
Winstead isn’t the only performer doing great work. She raises the game of Common through their electric chemistry. Despite failing at maintaining relationships, Nina finds a strong, mature and sexy partner with Rafe. Common turns on the charm from his opening moments. However, Rafe is more than just pure charm. He personifies a duality of emotionally available and slyly sexual. After this film, hopefully, Common receives calls from casting directors looking to put him in more romance roles.
Among the rest of the supporting cast, Kate del Castillo steals the most scenes as Lake, the self-help author with whom Nina stays. Her meditative rituals and relationship with Paula (Clea DuVall) are always welcome.
Writer/director Eva Vives makes her debut with “All About Nina,” a personal, semi-autobiographical film. Vives’ passion for the story clearly comes through. Oftentimes, much of the dialogue and set up feels either bald or overly constructed. By the midpoint, almost all of Nina’s New York haunts make their way to New York in contrived ways. The script tries hard to “paint by the number” and force engineer some of the major reveals. However, there’s no hiding the tremendous heart and pain behind the story.
Vives proves herself even more adept behind the camera. She shoots Silverlake with a very fun, loving smirk. There are lots of great directorial moments that frame Nina as an outsider in this new, strange land of Los Angeles. The place she feels most at home is during these solitary, nerve-racking stand up sets. Vives keeps the camera fixated on Winstead’s Nina. The world around her disappears. She always crash lands back on Earth, vomiting upon arrival backstage.
The comedy space has been a notoriously hard place for women. The concept of the boys’ club has permeated the scene. On top of that, actions of comedians like Louis CK have adversely impacted women in comedy. Yet, there have been incredible female comics who have prevailed, with some, such as Tig Notaro and Hannah Gadsby, using their lowest moments for heralded comedy specials. “All About Nina” does a great job capturing what it’s like to be a woman in comedy and also to be known as a comic who talks about their trauma. On first glance, the movie seems to be a nice romantic comedy in the world of stand up. However, it becomes a smarter look at how one comic’s story dictates her place in the comedy world.