Much like its heroine, Eva Vives’s All About Nina is a bit of a hot mess. In chronicling the exploits of provocatively feminist yet troubled aspiring comedian Nina Geld (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Vives attempts a juggling act of Farrelly-esque gross-out comedy and pitch-black drama that becomes dizzying in its tonal incoherence. Nina uses her self-destructive behavior and borderline alcoholism as material, and right out of the gate, the film only sees a kind of blunt irony in this blurring of her public and private selves.
After leaving New York for Los Angeles to land a spot on the fictional show Comedy Prime, fleeing an abusive married man she was dating in the process, Nina runs into one caricature after another. Lake (Kate del Castillo), who takes Nina as a boarder, is essentially a walking roll call of clichés one associates with free-spirited L.A. types. Elsewhere, the almost laughably romantic and chivalrous Rafe (Common), a potential paramour for Nina, only exists to show her that not all men are as bad as she thinks they are.
There’s a welcome feeling of spontaneity to the film whenever Vives homes in on Nina harnessing her craft, particularly in a sequence that sees the woman working on a series of impressions for her Comedy Prime audition. This sequence allows Winstead to show her playful side, and the audition itself, featuring an array of different female comedians and their acts, is a highlight of the film for the way it captures the easygoing nature of the performances and the comedians’ offstage interplay. But this is feeling is ultimately undercut when, in a typically forced bit of grotesque comedy, Nina vomits into a shot glass after coming off stage and then subsequently downs it.
Throughout, it’s as if Vives wants us to take for granted how Nina is often harsh and spiteful to those who inexplicably stay in her orbit in order to support her. The filmmaker withholds context for Nina’s behavior, and believes that Nina’s talent and bright future balances out her unseemly proclivities. This is hyperbolically outlined in a scene where a veteran female comic explains, and while Nina’s face is fixed in a worshipful tight close-up, that the entire fate of women in comedy rests on Nina’s shoulders alone. Vives does eventually come around to contextualizing Nina’s behavior in a late third-act reveal, but there’s still a sense that the film’s title, a promise of an all-access view into Nina’s life, is a sham. By the end, we’re not unlike the spectators at the comedy club: watching Nina and her antics at a curious remove.