Nina has just finished her set at the comedy club.
She killed, by the way.
She walks up to the bar and asks for a cocktail. The bartender tells her the club won’t comp her for that particular level of drink.
There’s an increasingly contentious back and forth exchange, with Nina asking the guy to knock off the wisecracks and the innuendo and just make the drink and she’ll be happy to pay for it, and the sexist bartender getting jerkier …
And then a man walks up and says he’d like to buy Nina a drink — and just like that, the bartender says, Hey no problem.
There are myriad moments of insight like that in writer-director Eve Vives’ sharp and funny and dark and so very timely “All About Nina.” Moments large and small when we come to understand why Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s smart and acerbic and sometimes devastatingly self-destructive stand-up comic wades into every day clad in emotional battle gear, with an enormous chip on her shoulder.
Can you blame her? Nina knows virtually every time she performs a set in some comedy dungeon, the MC will joke about how he’d really like to, um, be with her. She knows the male comic who’s been hitting on her backstage for a decade will never stop. She knows her raw and honest and explicit material, and her onstage presence as a thirtysomething woman who has never been in a romantic relationship and is primarily interested in men for short-term satisfaction, will intimidate some guys in the audience and give others the wrong idea.
That’s all on them. Nina is a badass who isn’t about to change her act just to appease anyone she makes uncomfortable.
Even though she’s yet to break through as a comic, she clearly has the talent and the vision and the originality to become a star. But if and when opportunity knocks, Nina’s personal life is such a disaster, and she has such a tendency to listen to her worst instincts, she might not be in any condition to answer the call.
Winstead’s Nina Geld is a talented comic who has been working the New York City club circuit to some success for years but has never reached the next level, due in no small part to her propensity for screwing up at the exact wrong time.
Determined to extricate herself from a longtime affair with an abusive married cop (Chace Crawford) and to take the Hollywood plunge, Nina moves to L.A.
Thanks to a not particularly subtle turn of plot, Nina’s agent Carrie (Angelique Cabral) arranges for Nina to stay with Carrie’s friend Lake (Kate del Castillo), a New Age, reiki-practicing hippie who is warm and welcoming but initially feels like a sitcom-level plot device. Eventually, though, there’s something sweet and touching about how Nina opens herself to the eternally optimistic, spiritually available Lake.
Chicago’s own multi-hyphenate treasure Common, who apparently never sleeps and whose 2018 acting credits include the HBO movie “The Tale” and the feature films “A Happening of Monumental Proportions” and “Smallfoot” as well as the soon-to-be-released “The Hate U Give,” enters the picture here as Rafe, who is so kind and decent, so transparent about his past, so straightforward in stating he wants to be more than a one-night blip in Nina’s life, she’s equal parts enthralled and terrified at the prospect.
And when in doubt or feeling vulnerable, Nina’s fallback position is to lash out. Sometimes the takedowns are deserved; on at least two occasions, Nina is so over-the-top cruel to her targets, it’s painful to watch. (Even more so because Nina is such a skilled wordsmith.)
In a brief but memorable turn, Beau Bridges plays one Larry Michaels, the all-powerful, near-mythical creator of a legendary, long-running, national comedy show, who is about to tab Nina for stardom. (Hmmm, can’t think of anyone who might have served as the inspiration for THAT character.)
Camryn Mannheim has a similarly small part as Nina’s mother, but what Mannheim does in a key scene, without speaking a word of dialogue, is just masterful.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who has consistently delivered good work in countless genres on TV and in the movies, delivers one of her most memorable performances as the title character, who is smart and cool and infuriating and sympathetic and odious and entertaining and so much more.
Nina aims to be different even when a certain audition requires her to do impersonations, hardly her forte. Nina’s Bjork and her Kristen Stewart are pretty good — but her impression of Werner Herzog is fantastically weird.
And simply fantastic.
‘All About Nina’
The Orchard presents a film written and directed by Eva Vives. Rated R (for strong sexual content and language throughout, some nudity and brief drug use). Running time: 97 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.