As I said a couple of weeks ago, my initial concern about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Paramount, 3.4) was that it would play its cards in a formula way — Tina Fey finds it hard to be Tina Fey while covering the Afghanistan conflict. The less-schticky second trailer seemed to indicate a slightly more complex approach. The night before last I finally saw the film and I have to say that it’s not half bad. It’s pooh-poohable, but it’s not fair to be overly dismissive given the built-in restraints and the source material.
Tina Fey in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa‘s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
It may sound like damning with faint praise to call Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Fey’s best film, but it really is that. No one will dispute that her best work has happened on 30 Rock and SNL. What half-decent features besides WTF can be singled out? Mean Girls wasn’t my cup. I can’t even remember if I saw This Is Where I Leave You.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which has been directed with a kind of semi-anonymous proficiency by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is the most honest and open-to-reality thing Fey has ever done. It has some schtick elements but they’re kept in check. Fey will never be Meryl Streep, and to be honest this film reminds you of her limited range, but she seems to understand this and stays within her zone. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an imperfect but honorable attempt to grapple with the unruliness of things. Not Werner Herzog-level unruliness, of course, but the kind that happens when you ease up on formula.
To put it another way, this is a tolerable, semi-plausible attempt to blend grity war realism (the film is based on Kim Barker‘s “The Taliban Shuffle,” an account of her Afghanistan experience in the early aughts) with the mentality or expectations of a Hollywood-funded, Tina Fey dramedy.
Fey’s character (called Kim Baker), a Chicago-based TV copy editor, leaves behind her boyfriend (Josh Charles) for a brief news-reporting assignment in Afghanistan, which eventually evolves into a much longer commitment. Shit happens, rough and tumble, dust in her hair, she has to earn her bones, watch out for predators and IEDs, relationships evolve, she mans up and does good work, etc.
(l. to. r.) Kim Barker, Taliban Suffle book art, Tina Fey.
Bearded, chubby-faced Christopher Abbott (James White, Girls, A Most Violent Year) convincingly plays an Afghan guide. Billy Bob Thornton plays a flinty, silver-haired Marine Colonel who walks a straight line, and a bushy-bearded Alfred Molina plays a Muslim horndog politician.
I didn’t lean forward and cover my face with my fingers, quietly moan, look at my watch 15 times…none of that. I sat there like a semi-alert adult with my legs crossed and said to myself, “Okay, this isn’t the clunker I was afraid of. It’s reasonably decent in some respects.”
But then Fey decides to do the nasty with Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy) in Act Three. Yes, that’s her business and her decision. Then again it’s in a movie so I get to have an opinion. I would have been happier if she’d boffed some hunky soldier or even Thornton, who’s presented as a reasonably sane straight-arrow type who keeps himself in shape. Who fucks Bilbo Baggins?
Will Whiskey Tango Foxtrot make money? I ran into some guy who wasn’t a journalist in the lobby after the show, and he asked what I thought. “It’s a reasonably okay film,” I said. “Decent. Not bad. Didn’t mind it. No harm, no foul.” The guy seemed a little let down that it wasn’t funnier. “Yeah but, you know, it’s not a comedy-comedy,” I said. “How could it be? It’s about real stuff in a war zone but with a kind of sheen…a kind of upbeat Hollywood attitude with a little schtick here and there.”
The guy wasn’t persuaded. He didn’t get what he came for. If this guy is in any way representative of the paying audience this movie is toast. People who go to Tina Fey movies want their Tina Fey elements, and this film, to co-producer Fey’s credit, doesn’t do that. Hats off for the attempt, at least.