Vives’ film lacks the necessary connective tissue to prevent its tendency to careen through contrasting tones from jarring the viewer.
Meltdowns behind the mic have become almost inevitable in feature films about stand-up comics, and Eva Vives’ All About Nina clearly barrels toward such an emotional purge from the start. The eponymous comedian (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is aggressively forthright both on stage and off it. But when the spotlight dims and her brash performance is narrowed to an audience of one, her fierce façade drops and reveals the damage underneath. Naturally, her romantic life is a mess: despite claiming to only be capable of one-night stands, she can’t stop sleeping with a physically abusive, married cop (Chace Crawford) who keeps showing up at her place late at night. She drinks too much and joylessly uses sex both as an offensive and defensive weapon, until she decides that making a change in her life will also require a drastic change of scenery.
With her sights set on an audition for a fictionalized “Saturday Night Live” show called “Comedy Prime”— produced by a man unsubtly named Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges)—Nina hightails it from New York to L.A., where she’s taken under the wing of Lake (Kate del Castillo), a hippy-dippy, walking la-la-land stereotype. There, she crosses paths with Rafe (Common), a straight-laced, anti-war ex-Marine, whose calm demeanor acts as a yin to the volatile Nina’s yang. As they hang out at his swank condo, they promise each other not to have sex on the first date and engage in the kind of genuine interpersonal connection that both appear to have been lacking—as becomes evident when Rafe’s awful quasi-ex, Ganja (Sonoya Mizuno), pops up and complicates matters, mirroring Nina’s own romantic-partner dysfunction. But despite these external complications, Nina’s tendency to self-sabotage is what most threatens this promising new relationship, and the film’s tension lies in the uncertainty of whether she will ultimately pull herself together or completely fall apart.
Despite its overreliance on well-worn tropes about the chaotic and misery-laden lives of people who tell jokes for a living, All About Nina possesses the ingredients for an incisive feminist commentary on the historically misogynistic world of stand-up. Winstead’s committed performance—she excels in the film’s many darkly dramatic moments and even busts out a handful of impressive celebrity impressions in its lighter ones—feels somewhat wasted, however, on a tonally scattered film. A misguided emphasis on scatological humor—Nina frequently pukes onto various things and a fellow comic shits her pants—is perplexing when juxtaposed with revelations of past trauma and moments meant to be heartrending.
For a film titled All About Nina, we’re only privy to a relatively limited, Janus-faced depiction of a character who is, in turns, brashly provocative and especially vulnerable. Despite the compelling chemistry between Winstead and Common, the film drags when it fixates on their relationship and the contrived obstacles that befall it. Far more dramatic (and melodramatic) than comedic, Vives’ film lacks the necessary connective tissue to prevent its tendency to careen through profanity-laden stand-up sets, self-help platitudes, profound trauma, gross-out gags and rom-com clichés from jarring the viewer.