all about nina review

Movies about comedians are usually a gamble. Often they’re too self-indulgent, or mawkish, or overly mean-spirited. Rarely do they balance the high drama of comedians’ inherent insecurities and the, you know, comedy. But the few that do succeed because they strike a personal chord — one that mirrors the self-deprecating performance and painfully real revelations of a good stand-up set.

All About Nina is as personal as you can get. Written and directed by Eva VivesAll About Nina is a searing, semi-autobiographical portrait of a troubled young woman trying to make her big break in the comedy scene. Played with an intoxicating swagger by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Nina is an abrasive stand-up comedian who never shies away from provoking people on and off-stage, but hides a dark past of her own.

All About Nina opens on Winstead’s titular Nina performing a profanity-laced set in a dingy bar in New York City. She wields her leather jacket, sexuality, and “fuck you” attitude like a weapon — or a shield. As soon as Nina steps off stage, she pukes into a cup and picks up a random stranger at the bar like it’s part of her daily routine. It’s immediately clear why she’s so troubled once she and the polo-wearing stranger stumble into her apartment, which is already containing her angry ex-boyfriend (Chace Crawford). He hits her and she apologizes, the sting of his slap reverberating through the screen. It’s going to be that kind of movie.

There’s a roiling undercurrent of abuse and trauma running through All About Nina, which feels perfectly attuned to the #MeToo movement. But at first, Nina seems like an imperfect conduit for the movement. She’s selfish, sabotaging, and incapable of letting herself be vulnerable — until she packs up and moves cross-country to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of appearing on the thinly-veiled Saturday Night Live stand-in (the executive producer is lazily named Larry Michaels), “Comedy Prime.” There, she moves in with a wacky new roommate and finds herself falling for the gentlemanly Rafe (an utterly charismatic Common, proving he’s romantic leading man material). Suddenly, the tone of the movie shifts, moving quickly from the seedy backdrop of New York City to the bright, rolling hills of California.

The new borderline cartoonish tone of the movie is best represented in Nina’s new roommate Lake (Kate del Castillo), a New Age free spirit who wears flowing dresses and speaks trippingly about her horoscope. But Castillo lends Lake an inner strength that transcends her character’s stereotypes, even as she leads Nina into a woodsy truth circle or makes organic smoothies. It’s Lake and a few other ridiculously flat-out L.A. stereotypes that pepper All About Nina with some much-needed levity.

But as for the stand-up comedy side of things, the jokes are surprisingly strong — enough that I almost expected them to be penned by a comedian. Vives’ screenplay sings with a real raunchy, aggressive humor, and Winstead delivers each punch line with aplomb. She gamely dives into the showman-y parts of this role, even serving up some stellar Bjork impressions. But it’s in the dramatic scenes that Winstead really shines. She makes an electrifying turn as Nina in what may actually be the best performance of her career — a career filled with stunning performances. Alternately harsh, heartrending, and harrowing, Winstead more than lives up to the title of the movie and provides a profoundly effective anchor for a hodgepodge of a story.

All About Nina sometimes felt like several movies smashed together. To be fair, I’m vaguely interested in watching each of these movies, except for the direct-to-DVD lurid sex thriller that Chace Crawford crawled out of. There’s the chatty indie romance where Nina and Rafe banter about life and relationships, exposing each other’s deepest vulnerabilities. There is the fish-out-of-water comedy filled with L.A. stereotypes and the quirky roommate; there’s the earnest indie comedy about the female comedy circuit which I wish I could have seen more of; and then there’s the dark, grim story about a survivor. The last one permeates the rest of the movie, unsettling you even as you don’t know quite why Nina is so damaged.

All About Nina deftly swings from comedy to tragedy, thanks in large part to Winstead’s revelatory performance and to Vive’s intensely personal script. It never quite answers how to deal with or embrace trauma, but All About Nina does suggest that sometimes the best thing to do is to crack a joke about it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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