The Unfortunate Process of Getting to Know ‘All About Nina’

by Warren Cantrell on October 11, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

All About Nina seems to know what kind of movie it wants to be without any idea of how to get there, for it is a coming-of-age film about comedy that knows nothing about what it means to be funny or even to grow up. Characters are poorly-conceived sketches of narrative functions that come off as robotic at best, and cartoonish at worst, leaving little for the audience to latch onto or identify with. And while the sentiments of the picture are noble, and deserve a voice, the characters and plot do it a horrible disservice, and stymie what could have been an interesting exploration of a woman inside a fascinating comedy sub-culture.

When the audience meets Nina (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), she’s working her way through a blistering stand-up routine in New York City, lamenting a world that just won’t stop trying to get in her pants. She maintains a tough front on-stage, yet once off of it, she’s revealed to be racked with performance anxiety, and mired in an abusive relationship. Unable to break free of the destructive cycle that envelopes her existence out east, she sets off to L.A., where fresh career opportunities and a free place to stay await her.

Just in case the audience didn’t realize they were going from New York to Los Angeles, All About Nina throws Nina into the stereotype deep-end, saddling her with a New-Age roommate that might as well be sweating hemp and granola. One gets the sense that this east vs. west coast pairing was supposed to be hilarious, yet it all comes off as tired and well-worn: like a sitcom that didn’t make it past the pilot….in 1998. As the film moves into its second act and establishes this L.A. move as the make-or-break moment in Nina’s life, her positioning as a broken, vulnerable, yet not at all likable person begins to weigh things down.

Nina’s stand-up routines are the axle upon which her character spins, and gives the audience insight into her life and worldview that might otherwise have been drawn out through painful exposition scenes. It’s a great device that successfully provides the background needed to quickly get to know this character. The thing is this, Nina’s material isn’t funny. Stand-up comedy is notoriously goddamned hard, and only works when an idea or routine is smoothed out and re-worked over countless attempts that hone in on what is and isn’t working. This is not at all the case, here. Although Nina’s bits are insightful about a modern woman’s experiences vis a vis relationships, the stand-up community, or menstruation hassles, the material just doesn’t land.

This disconnect between a main character that isn’t funny yet is supposed to be an up-and-coming comedian rips the engine out of All About Nina, and forces it to coast on what other momentum it has. Unfortunately for the film, there isn’t much of this, either. Common, outstanding in last year’s John Wick sequel, proves that he’s better at stoic, steely-eyed glares during close-quarters knife-fights than he is as an affable meet-cute candidate. He plays Rafe, here, the budding romantic interest of Nina in L.A., yet the lack of chemistry between the two is startling.

Still, one should not be too hard on Common, who is given awful dialogue to work with and a too-good-to-be-true backstory that sets him up as maybe the most perfect man to have ever lived. Writer/director Eva Vives has a knack for creating individuals with little basis in reality whose only purpose in the film is to advance Nina along her arc, making for characters that are less people and more sign posts. It leads to a single-track narrative that doesn’t allow for any deviation from the expected route, or any second consideration about what role a character is playing in the larger drama.

In other words, it is boring, paint-by-numbers filmmaking.

So, to recap, this is a flick about a damaged, self-destructive woman whose only real hurdle is her inability to make good decisions and be happy. Nina moves to L.A. and lands feet-first into a great career opportunity and relationship: all she has to do is allow herself to embrace and enjoy it. For the millions of people who make the same journey with one-tenth the professional prospects and even less romantic success, this can all feel like a slap in the face. It would be like making a movie about a person who wins the lottery yet can’t manage the hassle of figuring out how to spend all their new money. Sure, there is an interesting story in there somewhere, but it’s going to take sharp writing and good character work to get an audience to sympathize with such a scenario.

Sadly, All About Nina possesses neither of these qualities, and despite a fearless performance by Winstead and decent production values that give this the look of a well-conceived film, the effort falters. Although this is very much a late-stage maturity tale about a woman grappling with her own sense of self-worth played against a stand-up comedy backdrop, neither the comedy nor the maturation angles seem genuine. Undeveloped comedy, paper-thin characters, and an unlikable lead all work against All About Nina, a movie whose only real success is living up to its name. In any other movie, that might be a good thing – this is decidedly not the case here, however.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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