Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ✮✮
by Glenn Lovell
Those who caught the new Tina Fey “comedy” this weekend were, I’m guessing, more than a little surprised. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not at all what the previews led us to expect. Indeed, after her romantic interludes in “This Is Where I Leave You,” this is the closest Fey has come to a straight-out drama, tinged of course with the star’s signature smirks.
Adapted from Kim Baker’s nonfiction account of her days as war correspondent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, “WTF” casts Fey as a snarkier version of Baker, a cable news producer who, in 2003, as one of the station’s “unmarried, childless personnel,” signs on for what she thinks will be a three-month stint in front of the camera, embedded with the Marines in Afghanistan. Though in a committed relationship, she’s having one of those career crises and in need of a radical change of scenery. The three months stretch into three years as she becomes addicted to the adrenaline rush of reporting from the war zone.
While hardly as outrageous as “The Interview,” laughs at the expense of Muslim customs will cause some in the audience to grimace. In one sequence, Fey dons a burqa to hide her camera. Suddenly, every man in sight finds her irresistible.
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who teamed for three earlier offbeat dramedies, including the schizoid “Crazy Stupid Love” with Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, this new release occupies a sort of tonal no-man’s-land between stinging Robert Altman satire (see “M*A*S*H’’) and frat-party farce showcasing the talents of a hot new SNL alum. Indeed, besides Fey, “WTF” lists SNL creator Lorne Michaels among its producers.
This mix of battleground carnage (we see mangled bodies after a drone strike), scattershot humor and, finally, not-quite-touching sentimentality as Kim bids farewell to her secretly smitten interpreter (Christopher Abbott) makes us pine for a full-on satire about gonzo war correspondents. Think the third act of Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” where Joker adjusts to his role as Stars and Stripes reporter, and you’ll have some idea of what I mean.
Still, Fey is more than acceptable in the lead as she gamely navigates the pitfalls of moving about in a fundamentalist Islamic country (“Cover your head, worthless whore!”) while embedded with a Marine battalion that both protects and manipulates her. This premise allows for a semi-satisfying arc: Baker evolves from nitwit newbie to impassioned vet who battles for air time as her ratings-strapped station adjusts its focus.
Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman costar as war-hardened reporters who take Baker in tow to make sure she doesn’t greet a new day without a hangover. Freeman’s cynical Scot eventually becomes Baker’s love interest. The usually reliable Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton are left to wrestle with the broadly written roles of amorous Afghan politician and increasingly amenable Marine general. While some, quite rightly, will question the casting of a Brit as a Afghan, the versatile Abbott (last year’s “James White”) leaves more of an impression with only a fraction of the lines as Baker’s overly concerned chaperon.
Before awarding Fey and company hazardous duty pay, keep in mind they never left the good ol’ USofA: the mesas and buttes of Albuquerque sub for enemy territory outside Kabul and mountainous terrain on the Kandahar-Pakistan border.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT ✮✮ With Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Christopher Abbott, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; scripted by Robert Carlock from book by Kim Barker. 112 min. R (violence, profanity, sexual situations)