Mary Elizabeth Winstead made a magnificent drunk in “Smashed,” so it should be no surprise that she kills as a stand-up comic in “All About Nina.”
Drunken/druggy, needy and emotionally-crippled comics are a cultural cliche, like critics “in it for the hate.” And Winstead makes the most of her best big screen role since “Smashed,” one that builds of her formidable “Fargo” turn. She plays Nina Geld, a veteran stand-up hoping, at last, to land that big break “and not screw it up.”
Her material is killer, and let’s give a round of applause to writer-director Eva Vives for that. And Winstead, as Nina, plays it with the confidence of a queen bee who knows she stands out in a male-dominated field because she’s not just raw and funny, she’s beautiful.
How raw? Her act is blue and sex-heavy and her menstruating routine references it happening “right now” and dives into “Saving Private Ryan” comparisons.
How beautiful? She can sidle up to any bar in New York and makes her interest known — “Hey, wanna buy me a drink?” She’s just like she comes off on stage — direct, not interested in “dating.” Sexual.
How damaged? She throws up the moment she’s offstage, has screwed up her other big chances by screwing anything that moves — the doorman at the venue, anybody. Well, not the even more grizzled stand-up Mike (Jay Mohr). She has her standards.
Her latest bimbo bar pick-up meets the guy she’s been trying not to see any more (Chace Crawford) — at her apartment.
“He’s a cop, so yeah, he hits me.”
He’s also married with kids, so maybe a change of scene, maybe trying LA again, hoping for a Comedy Prime TV showcase — every comic’s dream.
Vives, whose biggest previous credit was writing the story of “Raising Victor Vargas,” stumbles into assorted Angelino cliches as Nina gets to play the jaded, superior New Yorker mocking the “feel your energy” writer/crystals-consulting screwball who hosts her (Kate del Castillo, quite funny).
And Nina also meets a guy she “won’t have sex with,” a “nice guy” (she thinks), down to Earth and all that. Common brings an easy charm to Rafe, a contractor curious enough to see “which is the real you,” Nina’s blunt, bluff and funny stage persona, or the brittle and equally blunt, but vulnerable and prone to drunken lash-outs woman she is without a microphone. Rafe’s background has its messiness, too.
Nothing in “All About Nina” is all that surprising. They just handed out a bunch of Emmys to TV’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” after all. But this detour into relationship land is least surprising of all.
As the scenes on stage, in the clubs, bantering and competing with the other women in her field for that “one spot” a comedy network has set aside for a “girl comic, “crackle with showbiz energy and “Punchline/Comedian” bite, the lovey-dovey stuff tends to drag the movie to a halt.
If Ms. Vives can write that well about comedy and create an act with this much pop, how can she not see that the love affair isn’t what the movie is about? Common is rarely this at home in a part, but less of him might’ve let this movie reach the realm of something special. Sex scenes, lovers’ quarrels and tender dates stop the picture. Leaning into a feminine sensibility works against “All About Nina.”
Scenes with her very pregnant workaholic agent (Angelique Cabral, alternately no-nonsense and nurturing) , her equally distracted mother (Camryn Manheim), other comics and even a buttoned-down network chief (Beau Bridges) have more substance.
Winstead/Nina in that world is fascinating — talking through new material in her apartment, naked, dismissing the boys of her profession, cutthroat with the other “girl comics.” When “All About Nina” drifts away from that, so does our interest.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language throughout, some nudity and brief drug use
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Common, Camryn Manheim, Chace Crawford, Jay Mohr, Clea Duvall, Kate DelCastillo, Mindy Sterling
Credits: Written and directed by Eva Vives. An Orchard release.
Running time: 1:40