All About Nina

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/17/18 12:59:45

"Says the right things in an unimpressive way."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

"All About Nina" is the sort of movie where you think, fifteen minutes in, that there's got to be some sort of really cruel sledgehammer blow coming, because otherwise it's just a movie about a stand-up comic who is not very funny and is kind of an awful person to be around besides. Sure, a lot of filmmakers will blithely make that sort of semi-autobiographical thing without realizing that is insufferable and dull, but even with a quality lead, there's a filter that prevents them from making their way to theaters.

So you spend the first half-hour or so of this movie waiting for the person who is going to draw something pleasant out of Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Nina Geld, whose routine includes gems like how she gets really bad diarrhea with her period and who doesn't really date so much as she has a thing with a married cop that she feels she must flee because he won't break it off - good thing there's an opportunity in L.A.! And, man, do things brighten up when Common appears on-screen and charms the heck out of everyone as Rafe, a contractor who usually doesn't go to comedy clubs but is recently divorced and likes the honesty she's showing on stage. He is basically perfect until the exact moment when the film requires him to be just selfish enough to make things a little bit harder, but not so much that it can't be walked back. It's calculated as can be, just enough to make the story not quite a complete fantasy.

There are times when the film itself resembles the most hackneyed stand-up comedy bits and inside baseball imaginable, with large chunks of the first act basically playing as extended "men are like this and so are women but they've got to pretend to be like that" and "wow, California is different from New York" bits. There's a laugh or two in them but it's so trite that it's hard not to wonder just why Nina is considered such a rising star. Writer/director Eva Vives doesn't seem to put a whole lot more into Nina's story than her comedy, either; she's just dropped into a much nicer living situation than she had back home, complete with eccentric but protective housemate, with no signs of needing a day job. A terrific boyfriend just walks up and introduces himself, and the big audition that drew her out goes pretty darn smoothly, especially since her post-set vomiting quickly became a running joke rather than something treated with real concern. It's maybe not quite easy, but between the cinema audience not laughing nearly as hard at her material as the people on-screen (or at all) and how demanding Nina can be, it begins to feel rather painfully self-indulgent.

Which leads, of course, to the Barry Crimmins-esque meltdown on stage, the one that tells the audience that Nina has been through some things to make her like this and you should maybe feel bad for how irritating you may have found her before. It feels kind of glib and awful to even write that, especially since Winstead sells the angry confessional moment so well, but there's something a little too calculated about everything around it. People and things from her old life showing up as a trigger works but it's laid on a bit too thick, and there's something kind of clinical about what happens after - the perfect reactions by some and cushioned callousness of her prospective employer that feels like the statistically average make response (or, maybe, neither Vives not actor Beau Bridges wanting anyone specific to think that the character is based job them). Nina and her agent talk about what this might mean in bland career terms,but the movie ends just as it's dawning on the audience that a film about how a comedian gets back to being funny after making herself synonymous with trauma would be a while lot more interesting than the month leading up to it.

It would be even more frustrating if Winstead and Common weren't so talented. They're both given pretty basic outlines and back stories, but are both capable enough performers to get something more out of these characters, sizing on moments when they can be genuine and funny a and feel unscripted even if their lives are carefully constructed. They show the right sort of chemistry with each other, talking a good game where their wariness is concerned but making Nina's and Rafe's quick, hard falls for the other completely believable. Winstead, in particular, pours everything she's got into a role that's more obviously worth her effort than the ones she usually gets, but stops well short of overdoing it. Common gets to show a squishy side that doesn't seem to come up often in his action roles, and his willingness to be kind of outwardly-uncool makes a nice comedian to Nina's abrasives.

It's entirely possible that large swaths of this movie are exactly right, from the heartfelt anguish Nina vomits out to the way comedians try to comment on universal themes despite seeming disconnected from everyday experience, but just not put together in a way that makes a good film, even with its two starts doing all they can. Despite the sledgehammer, this still comes across as a bit too much showbiz people who don't know much else, and that doesn't help a movie that's often on shaky ground to begin with.

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