Mary Elizabeth Winstead is no stranger to performing as a survivor on film. A while back, she portrayed an alcoholic in Smash, a kidnappee in the midst of a global incident in 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the object of many a toxic relationship in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. She exudes an empathetic brokenness amid a struggle towards/for strength to rise above it all in these and other roles. Far be it for me to speculate, but I would assume this comes from some sort of real place within.
All About Nina continues this trend of naked vulnerability, this time in front of a most public audience. Here, she’s a comedienne named Nina, whose stand-up routine is a combination of self-aware and highly cynical aggression and vulgarity, usually expressing anecdotes and observations on love and loving others from a most ugly yet brutally honest perspective. Winstead, with Nina, has found a character just straight up addicted to toxicity. She treats herself poorly when bedding men, accepting abuse and neglect all the way with a sarcastic smirk and a self-deprecating line. For her, this is all deserved. But why?
Early on, Winstead delivers a monologue practice routine, topless, to an open window, going over her experiences with bad men and her inability to accept that she doesn’t need it in her life. It’s heartbreaking, watching her make a joke out of her life, smiling behind eyes that want to cry. This is her NYC life but soon moves out to L.A. to seek opportunities with a new comedy group. She meets new age types, friends colleagues and begins hooking up with an older gentleman played by Common – who is at his most charming and absolutely kind. After her comedy sets, she tends to puke (not throw-up, mind you) automatically. Upon achieving romantic intimacy, she feels panic attacks. Heavy ones. There’s something to all of this, something it’s all leading to, but what?
All About Nina is about how death is easy, comedy is hard, and honesty is more difficult than that. Honestly with others and with yourself most importantly. Nina is written as self-absorbed at times, directed to be a bit too uncaring for the feelings and thoughts of others. She never really engages with anyone but Common, and even that relationship has its hangups. Should not she find this moment of revelation, this reason behind all of her self-loathing (self is a constant in this movie, as it is “all about” her), not at or through a man or anyone else but herself? She kinda does, exposing all for a shocked and uncomfortable crowd, but it’s as a result of an argument with someone and lots of drinking. It’s an unhealthy method of exposure therapy and acceptance for sure, but perhaps its appropriate for Nina. After all, this is her world, and we’re just revolving around her.
Winstead’s acting is singular and striking, eye-catching and soul-churning too. This is a movie of awkward forward momentum lacking comfort at almost every move. There’s a sliver of open-armed progression, but it comes with hurdles to leap over. Hurdles that Nina has built around herself. That the movie has made sure exist. That will prevent most crowds from enjoying this story.
For what it’s worth, I liked it. But of course, I identify and appreciate Nina’s outlook and attitude. Most won’t, but the most are not what this film is after: It’s the self that it wants.
RATING: 3 / 5
All About Nina opens in New Orleans on 10/12 at AMC Elmwood.