Film Review: All About Nina

This film about a feisty standup female comic is no laughing matter—and that ultimately works in its favor.
Specialty Releases

Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a foulmouthed standup comedian. Her act is as funny as it is crude. When she is onstage, talking about her period or men, she takes no prisoners. Off-stage, however, is a different story. She generally vomits after a performance, indicating her insecurity. And while she can defend herself against the lecherous advances of club denizen Mike (Jay Mohr), when she encounters her cop boyfriend Joe (Chace Crawford) at home, he hits her. She later jokes that his abuse keeps her awake during sex.

The tortured souls of funny people have been fodder for comedy-dramas for ages, and while All About Nina does not add anything new to this genre, writer-director Eva Vives’ film does benefit from the female perspective. It also showcases a fearless performance from Winstead. It is no surprise that Nina’s wisecracks mask a deeper pain, but she is repressing that. Nina is focusing on her career—she wants a job on “Comedy Prime” (a “Saturday Night Live” type of show)—and has practically given up on her personal life.

Nina soon relocates from New York to Los Angeles in the hope of getting an audition for “Comedy Prime.” She takes a room in a house owned by her agent’s friend, the new-agey Lake (Kate del Castillo), who takes her to a circle of truth, which the cynical Nina quickly escapes. Whereas Lake is “water-based,” Nina claims she is “whiskey-based,” and the latter is often seen with a drink in her hand. When she tries to order a Jack and ginger from an uptight comedy club bartender, she meets Rafe (Common), a too-good-to-be-true contractor who caught her act and asks her to dinner.

All About Nina uses Rafe as a way of getting Nina to open up a bit and be more honest and truthful in her real life, rather than just onstage. Just as she wants control in her art, she also wants command over her life, but she is not very good at it. Nina generally sleeps with the wrong guys and moves on. She has never had a serious boyfriend and secretly hopes that Rafe will break that pattern. An evening they spend together is quite promising, as they drink and talk and play “slapsies” at three in the morning, while trying not to have sex with each other. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work.)

While the budding relationship mellows Nina out a bit, her anxiety increases when she gets her big chance to audition for “Comedy Prime.” Watching Nina prepare for her impressions is amusing, but Winstead really delivers the laughs in her set, particularly when she mimics Werner Herzog ordering a smoothie.

If Vives gets viewers excited about Nina’s romantic and professional prospects, there is of course an ugly side to her life. All About Nina reveals its comic heroine’s bad behavior when she almost gets into a bar fight and later starts insulting Rafe. It may be the drinks talking, but when she bares her soul in a standup routine that is not at all funny but highly personal and painful, she displays her self-destructive tendencies. This scene is the make-or-break moment in the film, and more viewers will come down on Nina’s side, feeling empathy and understanding for her pain. It’s a powerful, emotional scene, but it almost feels as if Vives is stacking the deck in Nina’s favor, justifying her reckless behavior in a facile if game-changing reveal.

All About Nina remains compelling because Nina is someone viewers have come to care about and root for even as she makes some really bad decisions. Winstead sells the character who disarms awkward situations with humor, and eventually realizes she is capable of change. As Rafe, Common delivers a nice, easygoing performance that tempers Winstead’s nervier turn. A scene where he dances shirtless for her is a particularly irresistible moment. In support, del Castillo is amusing as a lesbian earth-mother type, albeit one afraid of mice.

Vives’ film wisely ends on a note of ambiguity. All About Nina is a bitter cocktail that will make viewers pucker, but it goes down smoothly.