I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Hail Mary, full of rage. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane, Alex of Venice) is utterly incendiary as standup comic Nina Geld, who may or may not be on the cusp of hitting it big professionally while her disastrous personal life is most definitely getting upended, though it’s too soon to tell if that’ll be for better or worse. We’ve seen movies about men like this. We’ve never seen a movie about a woman quite like All About Nina.
Geld’s agent (Angelique Cabral) has been trying, seemingly for years, to get the New Yorker to move to Los Angeles for the career boost it would offer, but it’s more to escape an abusive (and married) fuck buddy (Chace Crawford: What to Expect When You’re Expecting) that the comic finally agrees to do so. There, her New Agey, touchy-feely friend-of-a-friend host (Kate del Castillo: The 33, The Book of Life) presents a psychological challenge to Geld, who dresses in black, both literally and figuratively, as a matter of habit; and a potential new squeeze (Common: A Happening of Monumental Proportions, Megan Leavey) presents an emotional challenge: he actually wants a genuine connection, not a one-night stand, her usual approach to men.
So far, so familiar. But Eva Vives — making her feature directorial debut with All About Nina, working from her own semiautobiographical script — presents her own challenge to the subgenre of “closed-off fuckup is own worst enemy, sabotages absolutely everything” with the not-as-simple-as-it-appears gender flip of a familiar story. It’s not merely that, of course, in real life women are just as confused and lost as men are, and that we don’t see this onscreen anywhere near as often as we should. Messed-up women deserve, just as men do, the reassurance stories like this offer: See, you’re not alone; you’re normal and you’re probably going to be okay, though the road to getting there may be rough.
Much more important here is the particular setting of Nina: the world of standup comedy, which is male-dominated in every way that it can be. Geld’s onstage schtick, we see from the opening moments of the film, is itself a pushback against notions of presumed female reserve and modesty, behind the mic as well as offstage: Geld rants about sex, bodily fluids, and other earthy matters with the same frank, crude, scatological approach of her male peers… though the world is certainly not used to hearing about menstruation the way Geld talks about it. Geld — and Vives — are using the language of men to talk about the reality of women’s lives, and no one is prepared for that.
That comes to a head in Nina’s big scene. In a male comic’s story, this would be the instance of ultimate self-sabotage; here, it becomes something downright transformative and pointedly provocative in ways that go well beyond the realm of observational standup. Geld has been hoping for a chance to appear on a TV show called Comedy Prime — clearly an analog for Saturday Night Live; its producer is called “Larry Michaels” (Beau Bridges: The Descendants, From Up on Poppy Hill) — and it looks like she might have scuttled her chances when she turns an evening behind the mic into an explosion of full-blown wrath that goes viral even as it doesn’t even pretend to be funny. Her routine is wholly riveting, a raw raging against the denial of women’s experiences and the silencing of women’s voices. This is sparked by an acquaintance who, just prior to her going onstage, told her: “There’s so much anger in you, and I don’t know why.” Geld lets loose about why, and she’s violating not just a taboo of standup comedy but one of the world at large: women should not speak their truth, certainly not if it’s going to make the listener uncomfortable.
If a male comic went on the sort of tirade that Geld indulges in here, one this intimate, this honest, this transgressive about the crap he is expected to shoulder because he’s a man, he’d be deemed brave… and that would even be true. But with Geld, and with Nina, this isn’t bravery but sheer exhaustion with having had to carry the burden of her secret reality for so long, and having to cope with the judgment that she’s being unreasonable for carrying so much rage. And it is very much an indulgence for Geld to let loose; Winstead is on fire throughout the film, but the climax of Geld’s rage is a joy to watch in the same way, I imagine, that it would be to watch her literally set something ablaze that deserved to be destroyed. It’s hugely and satisfyingly cathartic. Even if it’s only a beginning to setting the bullshit of the world on fire.
All About Nina is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for October 5th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.