Mary Elizabeth Winstead lashes back at the stiflingly male-dominated world of standup comedy in Eva Vives' acerbic, stunning debut.
“Isn’t it great how all of the sudden they know that we’re funny?” comedy club owner and former stand-up Pam (Pam Murphy) tells her younger counterpart, Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) – one of many moments in All About Nina that lands as a joke, but leaves a bitter, all too realistic aftertaste. Writer-director Eva Vives’ debut feature about a woman who makes a profession out of turning her unhappy life into jokes comes at just the right time, when the world is only just starting to understand the breadth and width of female anger.
Though Nina fires off jokes on stage with a sexy, almost masculine swagger, she also explosively stress vomits after every show. She’d prefer if she could put more about her lonely, tumultuous personal life into her comedy, but chooses mostly to stick with sex and gross-out humor, the kind of the thing she knows will make mostly male comedy audiences comfortable. Unlike a lot of actors playing comedians in movies, Winstead seems like she’s been doing open mic nights for years, and as Nina she’s genuinely funny on stage. Off stage, however, she bristles with resentment at the overly confident men who approach her after her sets, sure that they can both match wits with her, and get her into bed, while gleefully ignoring the disgust in her eyes.
After getting herself out of a dead-end relationship with her married, abusive boyfriend, Joe (Chace Crawford, Gossip Girl), Nina leaves New York for L.A. to audition for Comedy Prime, a Saturday Night Live-like TV show. In one of the slyest jokes in the movie, Nina’s heavily pregnant agent, Carrie (Angelique Cabral, Life in Pieces), tells her that while the show’s producers concede that they need more women in the cast, they only have room for one, forcing her to compete with other female comedians for the attention of head producer Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges). A less sly joke is Nina’s temporary hostess, Lake (Kate del Castillo, Jane the Virgin), a Reiki healing hippie who starts out as a clumsy stereotype of a vapid L.A. new ager, but eventually becomes both a source of maternal warmth and strength for Nina – and, along with her girlfriend, Paula (Clea DuVall, Veep), a model for a healthy relationship.
Also warming up Nina’s little heart, much to her chagrin, is Rafe (Common), a contractor who approaches her with something she’s never seen before: quiet self-assurance. Though she’s physically attracted to him, Nina is taken aback and perhaps even a bit put off by what seems to be an innate kindness in Rafe, and a desire to treat her as a person, rather than someone he talks at until she agrees to go to bed with him. Things go so well that after spending the night together, Nina has a panic attack, terrified of what it means, and what will happen going forward. That’s the thing about finding sudden, unexpected happiness after so much nothing for so long—it feels a little bit like the trick where someone ties a dollar bill to a string, and yanks it away as soon as you try to touch it.
Like a lot of smart, funny people, Nina has a vicious streak, and uses it against Rafe, mocking him for his earnestness. She’s scared, and she’s cynical, and mostly she’s angry, angry at a lifetime of mistreatment, about being underestimated, and, most of all, about having to put on a funny, happy face for the world. Even nearing the third decade of the 21st century, society still struggles with the fact that women can be (and often are) both funny and angry, let alone both at the same time. Nina Geld is tired of having to choose one over the other, and tired of tempering her rage with humor to make it easier for other people to digest.
Few working actors are more underrated right now than Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Now that she’s been cast in a leading role in the D.C. Universe, with 2020’s Birds of Prey, she might finally achieve the stardom she should have had over a decade ago. As many times as Nina seems on the verge of becoming a stereotypical hard drinking, hard living broken bird who can only be healed by the love of a good man, Winstead pulls back with a smirk or a cutting remark. When Nina finally reveals what drives her anger, it’s not in a confessional, private moment with Rafe, it’s in front of an audience, in a performance reminiscent of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. Like Gadsby, Nina doesn’t say these things for sympathy, or even commiseration. She’s saying them because it’s time to say them, and because she’s tired of keeping her pain to herself. Winstead’s performance simmers with barely restrained rage, as if she’s aching for the opportunity to murder the next man who tells her to smile.
Despite some editing issues (certain characters just pop in and out of the plot largely to create conflict that isn’t really necessary), and the fact that Rafe could probably benefit from a little more character development than just being a super-nice guy who “fucks like a god,” All About Nina is unique in that its main character probably isn’t someone you’d want to spend a lot of time with, but you want things work out for her anyway. All we really come away with knowing for sure about Nina is that no matter how things play out with both Rafe and her comedy career, she’s going to keep doing what she’s doing, hopefully a little stronger and little better for it. Now that her anger is out for other people to see, maybe she can make it work for her. After being told that she picks on men too much, she says “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” and it sounds like a promise.
All About Nina takes the mic in Chicago theaters October 5th, opening at the AMC River East 21, Crestwood 18, Showplace 16 Shereville and Yorktown 18.