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An emotionally damaged stand-up comic finds the catalyst she’s not looking for in Eva Vives‘ All About Nina, a comedy world-set love story that’s definitely not a rom-com. Having gone to Los Angeles in part to escape an abusive lover, our protagonist winds up facing her demons in public at the least opportune moment. The premise offers plenty of room for yet another impressive performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead; balancing its darker moments with humor and warmth, the picture has a broad enough appeal to — finally, movie gods? — get Winstead onto the first-choice lists of top-tier filmmakers. It also establishes Vives, making her directing debut after co-writing 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas, as a filmmaker to watch.
We meet Winstead’s title character onstage, where she begins what is evidently a nightly ritual: Kill the crowd with sex-forward material; stress-vomit immediately after leaving the mic (a bartender already has mouthwash ready); and pick up the douchiest-seeming man she sees between the stage and the exit.
Tonight’s routine is interrupted by Joe (Chace Crawford), the married cop who sometimes comes over to slap Nina around and sleep with her — another ritual she’s unwilling or unable to disrupt. Until now: The next day, she goes to Joe’s house to introduce herself to his wife, angrily suggesting that the woman should “get your husband in line, because I can’t stop fucking him.”
Deciding that a proffered audition is the surest way out of all this, she leaves New York for L.A., moving in with her agent’s New Agey friend (Kate del Castillo). “I’m Lake, my pronouns are she/her,’ coos the water-spirit reiki practitioner — who surprises us soon by being more than a dippy la-la land caricature.
At her first local gig, Nina meets Rafe (Common, in a deeply sympathetic performance), who comes on like the emotionally available hunk Nina has never admitted she wants. After some amusing hiccups, the two embark on what promises to be the 32-year-old woman’s first actual relationship — even if Rafe’s first gestures of trust leave her in a hyperventilating heap, phoning for her shrink to talk her through the panic attack.
Phobias and lousy decisions notwithstanding, Winstead is no typical rom-com neurotic in the role. The actress makes Nina self-aware and unapologetic, in command of her art if not her libido. She’s rock-solid in her audition for the career-making Comedy Prime (an obvious Saturday Night Live stand-in whose producer, Beau Bridges’ Larry Michaels, practically shares Lorne Michaels’ name), even after learning that the tryout is something of a battle royale: The male-dominated show is opening up one slot for a new female castmember and is pitting a handful of women against each other for it.
For comedy fans who don’t hang out in the troll-ier parts of the web, it can be hard to believe there are still gatekeepers and audiences who think women are inherently less funny than men. But in interactions before and after this high-stakes laugh-off, the film depicts an uneasy blend of supportiveness and competition, with each of Nina’s peers understanding the zero-sum game despite the friendly banter.
If the script’s imagining of Nina and Rafe’s first nights together should strike any viewer as a little too perfect, scenes from this audition onward will make Rafe credibly human, giving him opportunities to be threatened, insulted or repulsed by what he learns about Nina. Ditching the usual stand-up comedy brick wall, Vives gives Nina the Bob Fosse treatment when she enters Lenny Bruce territory onstage, peeling artifice away under harsh spotlights and exposing her soul. Both onscreen and off, viewers hold their breaths as the performer justifies the anger she’s been carrying around for years; Winstead and Vives stretch the moment out so far, the movie feels ready to snap. It doesn’t, and neither does Nina.
Production company: Candela Films
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Chace Crawford, Clea DuVall, Kate del Castillo, Beau Bridges
Director-screenwriter: Eva Vives
Producers: Eric B. Fleischman, Sean Tabibian, Natalie Qasabian, Eva Vives
Executive producers: Joshua Astrachan, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Director of photography: Thomas Scott Stanton
Production designer: Kelly Fallon
Costume designer: Olivia Carrano
Editors: Saira Haider, Susan Littenberg
Composer: John Dragonetti
Casting director: Rich Delia
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Sales: Nick Ogiony, CAA
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