One of the several refreshing elements of the #Metoo movement is its cultivation of new artistic expression, particularly in American cinema, which has suffered a long drought of homogeneous storytelling centered on male leading roles, and told with little attention to female characters’ viewpoints. The 2018 Tribeca Film Festival has embraced this change, with a number of narrative features focused on women’s righteous struggles to succeed on their own terms in a still patriarchal 21st century. Eva Vives’ All About Nina is a well-intentioned attempt to capture this enduring conflict, even if at times it falls into traditional mainstream comedic tropes.
Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, superb) is a ferociously funny standup comedian with a gut-bustingly dark, sexually charged stage act, and a volatile off-stage life consisting of an abusive relationship, as well as an unapologetically profane reactiveness to anyone who crosses her path. That’s not to suggest that Nina wants this hot mess of a life. But as this New York City based comic puts it, she unapologetically “owns” who she is, and will channel her experiences into empowering her artistic expression on the stage.
Played with a provocative mix of caginess, fierce intelligence, anger and unpredictable vulnerability, Winstead’s interpretation of Nina embodies much of #MeToo’s desire to present female artists as wholly realized human beings, as opposed to one-dimensional fixtures in male-dominated productions. Comfortably adorned in t-shirts and leather jackets, Nina is a believable hardscrabble gen-mil NYC comedian with an axe to grind with a unsatisfactory world of socially unaware baby boomers, and a thankless entertainment industry.
But when All About Nina‘s second act quickly whisks Nina away to Los Angeles for a “fresh start”, an exercise in bourgeoisie wish fulfillment ensues, undercutting what could have been a more raw, provocative character study.
Thanks to her agent, Nina’s new L.A. digs are at a majestic villa owned by Lake (Kate del Castillo), a water-spirit based Reiki practitioner and madly successful novelist about to finish her 12th book. Conveniently, Nina is blessed with a gorgeous workspace, access to a kitchen bigger than her last apartment, and a host of healing gardens plus a cat sanctuary, should Nina choose to let Lake do her magic.
The setting represents yet another misguided effort to make an independent artist’s life appear miraculously pleasant and cushy (compare to Inside Llewyn Davis, which became a modern classic in large part because the film refused to take this route). Surely, Nina views Lake’s lifestyle incredulously, and the sarcastic comedic interplay between Nina and Lake is plentiful and lighthearted. Nevertheless, the typical set up of the skeptical New Yorker bemused and eventually comforted by bohemian Los Angelinos is a radical departure from a film that started off as a fireball of ferocity and dare.
Common as Rafe (IMDB)
Also too conventional for a story about a darkly funny comedian is Nina’s budding relationship with Rafe (Common). An R-rated version of a Hallmark channel business hunk, Rafe whisks Nina away into another upscale fairy tale. Their interlude unevenly transitions All about Nina from a comedian’s uneasy ownership of her inner demons, to a standard situational rom-com full of stock courtship sequences consisting of medium shots between a hardened relationship-phobe, and a misunderstood player’s eventual reveal that he is a softhearted, private goofball.
Nina continues to have her self-destructive moments, but stuck between an LA satire and borderline rom-com mashup, they sometimes become mere plot devices as opposed to further ventures into her psyche. None of this is to take away from Winstead’s performance—which in often capturing Nina as a wolf backed up against a wall, flashing her teeth at anyone who tries to come too close — refocuses the story on an emotionally disturbed female comedian. But Nina’s rebellions are all too quickly assuaged by conventional soft comedy apparati—her new Reiki friends, wonderful beau, and eminently pleasant surroundings all too clearly signal Nina’s path to healing her troubled past.
Nor is the film nearly critical enough of Nina’s career stakes, which center on an audition for the inaugural female slot on Comedy Prime —a show oozing with chauvinism produced by Larry Michaels (a Lorne Michaels knockoff played with aplomb by Beau Bridges). Nina only mildly rails against the all-female high stakes laugh off, which feels inconsistent with a character whose reputation is built on bashing patriarchal norms.
I’is only during a bar roundtable scene where Nina and her female comedian colleagues cut loose, privately spitting venom at the show’s antiquated format and quite simply making one another laugh. The scene is a brilliant glimpse of who these women really are, and the difficulties they must face to conform to a still male-dominated entertainment industry’s expectations. Still, a fully realized feminist artist film, or really any meaningful character study, should demand more than just the occasional peek.
Eventually, Nina makes a titanic emotional reveal during her final stage act—emphasized by a pitch black backdrop and a sliver of spotlight— portrays the dark underbelly of her comic routine. It’s a searing moment when Nina fully erupts at a world which insists she hold it together and to remain likeable. The scene is also a meta-commentary where Nina is also unleashing against the film’s storyline. All About Nina—while a solid, lightly dark comedy— misses an opportunity to be truly remarkable by too often insisting its story gravitate toward pleasantness.