Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is angry and doesn’t care who knows it. Her comedy act is abrasive, her personal manner abrupt, and her sex life really is all about the sex. Western culture harbors a certain fondness for angry young men (there’s even a British literary movement named after them), but has a lot less tolerance for women who express their anger openly, no matter how justified they may be in doing so. So Winstead has her work cut out for her as the central character in Eva Vives’ All About Nina, but she’s more than up to the task.
If we held a contest to establish which professional field was the most misogynistic, I have a feeling standup comedy would come in close to the top (maybe neck and neck with astrophysics). The structure of the comedy business leaves women vulnerable to exploitation, and the prevailing tone of much of what passes for comedy is frat boy humor for people who should have left those days behind them. So a woman who wants to make it in this field has to be tough as leather, and Nina is certainly that, although she’s also self-destructive (news flash—victimized people often are). Still, while Nina can BS with the best of them, she’s fierce enough to retain a basic honesty about who she is and where she’s going.
It’s that honesty, along with career ambitions and the need to flee an abusive (and married) boyfriend (Chace Crawford) that makes Nina pack up and leave New York at a moment’s notice. She heads for Los Angeles, where her heavily pregnant agent (Angelique Cabral) sets her up with an audition for a TV show that could be her big break. Nina knows that the opportunity only exists because someone decided that 50% of the population should be represented now and then, and that she’ll be competing against other women for one token spot, the way black athletes used to have to compete against each other for the few slots allowed to them in professional sports. Still, she can only compete for jobs that exist, so every addition to the small pool of employment opportunities is welcome.
Show business is just as brutal on the other coast, although Nina’s transition is smoothed by the fact that she owns a car (does stand-up in New York really play that well?) and has someone to stay with. The latter, a friend of Nina’s agent, is played with good humor by Kate del Castillo, who gets to do a wonderful scene in which she and her girlfriend discuss dish sponges with as much seriousness as if they were negotiating a hostage release. Nina gets another lucky break when she meets a man (Common) who is willing to both confront her evasions and help her work through her issues. He’s not exactly perfect—in fact, he’s “just the right amount of fucked up,” as the screenplay put its—but he’s the right person for her at this time of her life.
Winstead is almost constantly on screen in All About Nina, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else projecting the complex combination of anger, attractiveness, insecurity, and pain that makes Nina what she is. It’s not all about club performances, either: All About Nina shows her developing and rehearsing her material at home, mining her personal life for the kind of anecdotes and observations we are used to hearing from a male perspective. All About Nina culminates in amazing performance in which Nina tells the real truth about an experience that would never have made it into the filtered version of reality that passes for truth-telling in the standup world. We all know that the movies are not real life, but Winstead delivers this monologue with such raw honesty that the circumstances of the telling—an audition for a TV program—disappear, and it’s just you and her and a truth being spoken. | Sarah Boslaugh