The biggest problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is that it stars Tina Fey and was written by Robert Carlock, who along with Fey created the TV hit 30 Rock. Anyone familiar with their work will expect this movie to be a straight-up comedy, and understandably so, given their track record and the humor-driven trailers. But it isn’t a straight-up comedy; it has funny scenes, but there’s also a serious tone that belies the levity. Anyone expecting nonstop laughter will assuredly be disappointed.
None of this is Fey’s fault, mind you. She plays her character well in both dramatic and comedic moments. You can, however, blame Carlock and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus) for the unbalanced tone. And boy does this matter: Selling the audience one thing (a comedy) and delivering another (funny moments accompanying deadly serious elements) doesn’t work for positive word of mouth. For example: Last fall Crimson Peak was in some ways sold as a horror movie even though it was actually a gothic period piece, and it grossed only $31 million on a $55 million budget.
That said, with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot the biggest shame of all is this: The movie is actually good on its own terms, yet people may not appreciate it if they go in with misguided expectations.
Based on the book The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker, Fey plays Barker, a television news journalist in New York City who’s sent to Afghanistan in 2003 to cover Operation Enduring Freedom. In Kabul she meets similarly displaced journalists from around the world, including the gorgeous and British Tanya (Margot Robbie) and the lothario and Scottish Iain (Martin Freeman). She has a hunky bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke), a helpful guide (Christopher Abbott), and a working relationship with a Marine Corps general (Billy Bob Thornton) and the future attorney general of Afghanistan (Alfred Molina). Kim is only supposed to be in Kabul for three months, but ends up staying three years.
The film is at its best when the humor and dramatic elements work in unison. Kim is a professional woman in a dangerous area that treats women like second-class citizens, so it’s both funny and a social commentary for Kim to be called a shameless whore because her head isn’t covered upon arriving in Kabul. Kim’s attractiveness is also played for laughs when she’s told by men and women that she’s close to a 10 in Kabul, whereas she’d be more like a five or six back home. A man wouldn’t be spoken to like this, so it’s an alarming indication that the way we socially and culturally view women is omnipresent even in the midst of wartime conflict.
Aside from being an odd mix of comedy and drama — with a smattering of explosive violence thrown in for good measure — the story lacks a clear narrative thrust. With not much pushing it forward besides Kim’s adventures in Kabul, the plot meanders along without urgency, episodic in structure rather than building to a climax. Things happen, but they rarely feel essential. This is partially redeemed in the conclusion when various threads come together, but by then it feels too late.
And yet, it all works. Fey is fallible and likeable, an appealing presence whom we’re happy to root for even when she makes questionable decisions. The film opens with the song “Jump Around” — always a crowd favorite — and has a peppy pop soundtrack throughout. In its totality Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is enjoyable, even if it’s not what you’re expecting.
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