Stand-up comedian Nina Geld throws up after every set. That’s just one of the painful details we learn about the wonderfully complex character Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays in “All About Nina,” a striking and at times uncomfortably personal feature debut from writer-director Eva Vives that makes good on its title by not shying away from the emotional damage that makes its protagonist so compelling.
It takes guts to be this brutally honest onstage, and even more to do so on-screen, where the movie serves as a fossil record of the enormous weight its creator needed to get off her chest, but Vives gets it: If you’re going to unload this kind of baggage, you might as well do it through comedy — or in this case, through an unusually turbulent romantic comedy, wherein New Yorker Nina flees to Los Angeles to escape an abusive lover (Chace Crawford) and pursue those supposed career opportunities showbiz entices funny people with, but that anyone who’s been through the audition/showcase/pitch-meeting wringer can tell you is really just another form of abuse.
The demoralizing L.A. part of that experience is so universal that it has spawned an indie subgenre of its own, in which frustrated comics craft calling-card projects hoping to get noticed. Henry Phillips basically made that movie twice, first as “Punching the Clown” and later as “Punching Henry,” although there are fewer examples from women, who often find it harder to break in and/or tell their stories. Vives updates the formula with such broad but memorable West Coast types as Nina’s distracted and very-pregnant agent (Angelique Cabral) and her reiki-trained lesbian landlady (Kate de Castillo), who has a great scene — one that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors — in which she and her partner take a moment to defuse a disagreement involving a kitchen sponge.
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If you think Hollywood is a boys’ club, the world of stand-up comedy is worse. In a field where rape jokes have become de rigueur, it takes rhinoceros-thick skin to do what Nina does, adopting the persona of an impossibly self-confident, sexually liberated woman when she’s onstage while wrestling with a far gnarlier love life in the real world. Nina isn’t lying so much as playing the version of herself she wants people to see — one that allows her to shoot down her male colleagues’ inappropriate come-ons backstage, while making it relatively easy to pick up whoever she wants from the crowd after the show.
Vives wrote “All About Nina” before the #MeToo movement took off, but it’s fair to say she was feeling just as fed up with the way women are treated as those who spoke out against sexual harassment publicly. This film serves as her statement, inspired by the experiences she has endured, apparently beginning in the home, and it blisters with the ring of truth. Vives doesn’t shy away from the most difficult details, including those that might make Winstead’s character “unlikeable” — that quality that so often scares film producers, but in this case reflects what is most special and timely about the movie. Vives allows Nina to be inconsistent, contradictory, and above all, human. One moment, she’s building intimacy for the first time with a guy, Rafe (Common, all charm), who doesn’t insist on shagging her as soon as they meet, and the next, she’s shagging him after all.
That’s just one of at least a dozen ways that Nina’s allowed to be a realistic, three-dimensional person in a medium where spontaneous unpredictability is so often treated as a character flaw in women but an asset in men. Rather than casting someone from the stand-up world, Vives challenged an actress to navigate the nuances of the role. Winstead was far and away the right choice: To some extent, Nina is a natural extension of the alcoholic schoolteacher she played in “Smashed,” swinging between the extremes of charismatic and self-immolating.
Winstead is positively electric in the part, blazing through the front half of the movie like a tornado, only to reveal the character’s vulnerabilities as she opens up, first to Rafe and eventually to the anonymous strangers who turn up to see her perform. As Common’s incredibly perceptive and impossibly patient perfect-man puts it, “You sound like you do onstage. Either you’re not being honest up there, or you’re not being honest right now.” Nina, who’s acerbic and self-deprecating but not so funny in her personal life, describes Rafe as “just the right amount of f—ed up,” but his flaws seem minor to non-existent. In fact, it’s a credit to Common that we accept such an idealized character — easily the strongest of the half-dozen supporting roles he’s had this year.
As if responding to Rafe’s challenge, Nina finally speaks her truth onstage in a big scene that is every stand-up’s fantasy/nightmare. Candid as most comics pretend to be, few have had the courage to perform such an unfiltered monologue in real life. Tig Notaro did it, delivering her now-famous “Hello, I have cancer” set within days of receiving the diagnosis, and Hannah Gadsby has been getting noticed for the candor shown in her recent Netflix special, “Nanette.” Here, Nina’s confessional set takes the already-raw portrait to a whole other level. “All About Nina” is very funny, but with that scene, it breaks our hearts, forcing us to reevaluate Nina’s recklessness while reiterating the lesson of the last year: that we never know what someone has been through until that person chooses to share it, and that going public takes courage, as there’s no going back.