Within a few minutes of meeting Nina Geld, the main character of writer-director Eva Vives’ raw and confrontational comedy “All About Nina,” a viewer will be faced with a choice: Give up on this apparent self-destructive woman, or give her a chance to see where she might end up.
Despite the strong temptation to throw in the towel, though, the second option ultimately pays off — but not without some pain along the way.
Nina, played with ferocious spirit and self-deprecating wit by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is a New York stand-up comic who talks a lot in her act about her sex life. She’s more confident onstage than off, where she drinks often and partakes in a string of one-night stands. Her longest-lasting relationship is with Joe (Chace Crawford), a cop who shows up to slap Nina in the face and demand sex, and afterward go home to his wife and kids.
Nina decides she’s had enough of this crap, so she packs up for Los Angeles, in hopes of landing an audition with the all-powerful head (Beau Bridges) of a comedy TV channel. Nina’s agent, Carrie (Angelique Cabral), sets Nina up with living arrangements with a New Age author, Lake (Kate Del Castillo). Nina gets a dose of California crazy — like meeting Lake’s guru, Smoky (Todd Louiso) — while getting her act in shape for her audition.
One night, after a performance, Nina gets chatted up by Rafe (played by Common), who’s unlike any guy she’s ever encountered. He’s sweet, he’s charming, he’s funny, he’s honest — and he is insistent that he doesn’t want to have sex with Nina on the first date. This is new for Nina, and intriguing, and seems like the start of a promising romance. But in the back of Nina’s mind is the anxiety that she, based on past experience, will screw this up somehow.
Vives, who co-wrote the 2002 indie gem “Raising Victor Vargas” and makes her feature directing debut here, brings an intensity and unvarnished honesty many movies are afraid to touch. You know early on, when Nina bounces back from an awful encounter with Joe by practicing her stand-up routing wearing only her panties, that this is a movie that is going for the jugular. (In an interview, Winstead said she performed a joke Vives wrote about Louis C.K.’s harassment of women, long before his behavior was made public — but it was cut once C.K.’s habits made The New York Times.)
Winstead’s scenes with Common are sweet, like watching two people really discovering each other and whether they are in love. The tone in these scenes is a sharp contrast to the rest of Nina’s life, and her stand-up routines, which move from scathingly self-deprecating to nakedly confessional.
Winstead —who has been so consistently talented in such films as “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” “Smashed” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” — is scary good here. She shifts with quicksilver speed from Nina’s no-bull onstage persona to her offstage self-loathing, and exposes the unhealed wound that is at the root of Nina’s damaged psyche. Like Nina, Winstead’s performance is both honestly funny and drop-dead serious.
‘All About Nina’
Opened September 28 in select cities; opens Friday, October 26, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for strong sexual content and language throughout, some nudity and brief drug use. Running time: 101 minutes.