Tone means everything in comedy – any kind of comedy. With a rollicking black comedy set in a war zone, the tone necessarily goes plural, as the story careens from the abruptly tragic to the blithely, weirdly funny and back again.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” learns this lesson the hard way, and while it’s no disaster, it’s oddly indistinct and uncertain.
The film stars Tina Fey as a battle-untested TV news producer and writer thrown into the war correspondent game in Afghanistan. Here and there, the “Crazy, Stupid, Love” directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa capture the keyed-up camaraderie of its setting, and the dislocating strangeness of what it must be like to drop into a U.S.-led conflict as a reporter, inside the mess yet outside it. Alas, most of the film settles for comic dithering and hoked-up romance under fire.
“Guess I’m a war reporter now,” Kim Baker tells her longtime boyfriend (Josh Charles) early in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Once in Kabul, Kim finds a patient, reliable colleague in her local fixer, Farouk (Christopher Abbott). Kim’s pals include the hottest babe in country, and Kim’s unofficial relationship coach Tanya (Margot Robbie); the oft-shirtless security officer Nic (Stephen Peacocke); and the brash but sweet freelance photographer Iain (Martin Freeman). He loves the carousing, high-adrenaline life he’s living; it appeals to Kim as well, up to a point.
That point becomes the point of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Shot largely in New Mexico, doubling for Afghanistan, the film written by Robert Carlock hinges on the incongruity of Baker in Kabul and beyond, as she learns to cover the story and finesse interactions with the troops (Billy Bob Thornton plays another of her patriarchal protectors) as well as with the horndog Afghan prime minister (Alfred Molina).
Carlock based his script, very loosely, on “The Taliban Shuffle,” former Chicago Tribune correspondent Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir. Barker’s perspective and wit managed to keep the chronicle just this side of glibness. The movie exists on the other side. Everything that happens in Afghanistan is narratively engineered to make Fey’s character look good. There’s a can’t-lose swagger to Fey’s performance, at odds with the role as written.
The film itself feels uncertain, compromised and tentative. Those are very different qualities than brash, or bracing, or provocative.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Cast: Tina Fey, Martin Freeman, Josh Charles
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Length: 111 minutes
Rating: R (pervasive language, sexual content, drug use, violent war images)
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