Within the first few minutes of All About Nina, the debut feature from writer-director Eva Vives, we get the highlight reel version of just who this Nina is through quickly strung glimpses of her stand-up routine: period jokes, punchlines about how men screw everything up, a familiar brand of misandrist comedy that gets her both lauded and confronted for her brash honesty.
Thirty-three-year-old Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has all the predictable traits of a candid female comic. She wears a black leather jacket, a tough exterior that matches her hardened heart, and dates casually but has commitment issues and is often attracted to the wrong type, like her on-again, off-again lover, an abusive married cop (Chace Crawford) who shows up in her life whenever he pleases. Nina can’t seem to say no to him, but the bruises on her love life make for good stand-up material, which is perhaps why she keeps men like him around. Winstead’s casting is a godsend, as she makes Nina a compelling watch even as the movie burns through all there is to know about this stereotype just after its opening scenes.
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“I’m with him because I’m a fuck-up,” Nina says while practicing an anecdotal bit. That moment seamlessly transitions into a therapy session — the line between what she shares on stage and under the oath of doctor-patient confidentiality often gets blurred. Vives relies heavily on cliché cues, showing us the extent of Nina’s damage with scenes of her smoking cigarettes in the shower, puking backstage or making provocative sentiments about her abusive relationship: “keeps me from falling asleep during sex.”
For a change of personal pace, and in pursuit of an opportunity to audition for an Saturday Night Live-type show, Nina moves to Los Angeles. Too bad that there Vives falls back on even more clichés, pairing Nina with the most stereotypical L.A. roommate: a New Age hippie type named Lake (Kate del Castillo) who attends cat sanctuary circles.
The film perks up with new energy when Nina meets a guy named Rafe (Common, with a performance that proves he should lead every romantic comedy). Their courtship is also predictable but at least fun to watch. As expected, some bumps come along — and pretty soon — like the run-in with Rafe’s ex, another comically L.A. stereotype (a woman named Ganja who threatens to go out with Joaquin Phoenix instead). But more significantly, Nina’s past comes back to haunt her — not just the affair with the abusive cop (with Rafe being black, you’d think this would make for a bigger talking point) but also the original cause of Nina’s trauma.
Always a likable actor, here Winstead is at a charismatic high, carrying a mediocre film, making it impossible to turn off through her star power alone. She’s wildly funny (and spot on) doing the impressions in Nina’s act (especially of Bjork ordering a smoothie) but also proves uninhibited and candid when Nina doesn’t have jokes to hide behind.