'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot': Film Review

Paramount Pictures/Screenshot
Could have used more edge and surprise.
3/4/2016

Tina Fey headlines this seriocomic look at a female reporter in Afghanistan, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa ('Focus') and co-starring Margot Robbie.

Apropos of Hollywood's now-burgeoning sub-genre of comedies about initially hapless non-combatants who find themselves in Afghanistan, it can be decisively stated that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is superior to last year's Rock the Kasbah. Which isn't saying much, only that it's moderately more amusing to follow Tiny Fey's quick-study newshound through the fleshpots of Kabul and the peril of the militia-infested countryside than to suffer through Bill Murray floundering around as a Hollywood music manager who discovers a wonderful singer in the middle of nowhere — even if it seems as though both films used many of the same sets and locations. Moderate later winter box-office appears in store for this very uneven blend of prankish black humor and topical drama.

In its review of journalist Kim Barker's 2011 book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and PakistanThe New York Times remarked that the author “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” And so it has come to pass that Fey has donned the headscarf of a fortysomething adrenaline junkie who tests herself against the rigors, danger and debauchery of life on a very uncertain front in the wars on terror of the mid-2000s.

The first act represents a virtual replay of Kasbah, which, despite its big cast names, went on to gross all of $3 million worldwide: There's the nerve-wracking flight to Kabul, the greeting by assorted hunky security personnel, the rank hotel and, above all, the Westerners' wild nightclub, which looks like a place where the wolf of Wall Street would be right at home and is made all the more so by the presence of Margot Robbie's hard-drinking Tanya Vanderpoel. This blunt blond beauty begins by asking Kim (ever-so-slightly renamed Baker here) if her personal security guys are available for her to boff and then helpfully informs her that women who would be rated a 'four' or a 'six' back home might sometimes be considered a '10' by the men here. Kim plausibly wonders what score knockout Tanya registers by local standards.

Kim's hunky New Zealander guardian Nic (Stephen Peacocke) could be a good-times candidate, but not for Kim, who's just in the country for a three-month stint while her boyfriend waits back in New York City. Instead, screenwriter and longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) devotes the early-going to pro forma exposition about how “this here is a forgotten war,” and mild boot-campy stuff in which Kim is shown the ropes, deals with the anarchic scramble that is downtown Kabul and embarrassingly requires a military caravan to stop so she can get out and pee. By this point, one strongly suspects that comedy and Afghanistan simply don't mix.

Just as it looks as though Kim just isn't cut out for this beat, a massively convenient plot device involving a Skype with her boyfriend cuts her restraints and she jumps into action both professionally, with some hot war footage, and amorously, with rude and sarcastic Scottish photographer Iain (Martin Freeman, in a vivid change of pace from his long Middle-earth and Baker Street gigs). In short order, Kim becomes part of the ballsy, hard-driving, live-for-today-because-you-never-know-about-tomorrow fraternity, although, in one of the more amusing subplots, she does stop short of agreeing to become the “special friend” of a top local politician and valuable source (a heavily bearded Alfred Molina in a funny performance).

Even as Kim hunkers down for the long haul (she ends up spending two years in the region) and tragedy and loss inevitably become part of her life, the film remains fundamentally superficial, offering no take on the politics of the region, Westerners' role there, the usefulness of the journalists, the views of locals, et al. One fairly tense scene has Kim surreptitiously recording a local men-only religious/political conclave, but when dramatic urgency finally arrives late in the game, it strictly involves the central characters' safety and happiness and does nothing to illuminate the larger geopolitical picture.

More than anything, then, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is about careerism, which in this case involves gathering your wits and courage, abandoning customary niceties and inhibitions, becoming unhesitantly assertive and, once the action briefly returns to New York headquarters, coping with some competitive female conniving and duplicity. The film could have been about any high-stakes modern profession, for all it cares about war, international politics, the military or religion, much less the specific conditions within the country where it mostly takes place.

As in their previous films (I Love You Phillip Morris; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Focus), directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa enjoy just scattershot success in hitting their seriocomic targets, scoring from time to time with their more coarse and outlandish gambits but rarely inducing one to take what they're watching very seriously. Visually, they keep pretty tight on the actors when some broader perspectives and complex shots involving more character interaction might have heightened the visual interest.

More than anything, one feels, the directors are there to serve Fey, whose performance is as energetic as it is fundamentally predictable; one never expects Kim to do anything other than get it together and rise to the occasion, and that's exactly what she does. There are no surprises or hitherto untapped resources mined here.

Distributor: Paramount
Production companies: Broadway Video, Little Stranger
Cast: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton, Nicholas Braun, Stephen Peacocke, Sheila Vand, Evan Jonigkeit, Fahim Anwar, Josh Charles, Cherry Jones
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screenwriter: Robert Carlock, based on the book
The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker
Producers: Lorne Michaels, Tina Fey, Ian Bryce
Executive producers: Charles Gogolak, Eric Gurian, Sam Grey
Director of photography: Xavier Grobet
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Costume designer: Lisa Lovaas
Editor: Jan Kovac
Music: Nick Urata
Casting: Bernard Telsey, Tiffany Little Canfield

Rated R, 111 minutes

 

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