Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Opens March 4
“It is funny, but not overly so, which seems fitting,” wrote Kim Barker in the New York Times about this filmed version of her 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle, which details the journalist’s years embedded in war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s bang-on on all accounts—the laughs are sparse but usually solid when they hit, and the sparing application of comedy is appropriate for yet another “based on a true story” account that involves real stakes, real exploded bodies and true historical consequence. The slapstick cutaways to dog sex, rom-com-ish budding flirtations and 30 Rock dialogue rhythms ensure that this is no solemn American Sniper, but the filmmakers take some pains to stress the actual violence and war zone confusion of the whole situation (without ever taking a political stance), avoiding a devolution into complete tonal schizophrenia. 30 Rock’s imprint goes beyond star/co-producer Tina Fey to include co-producer Lorne Michaels and screenwriter Robert Carlock, a very gifted showrunner and writer on the late, beloved series. Fey is still far from translating her success on that show to movies (not that she’s obligated to do so), but the results here are less rocky than the usual disposable Amy Poehler pairing, hinting that her full crossover potential lies in further explorations outside of her Liz Lemon comfort zone.
At the time, Barker was a Chicago Tribune reporter who often found herself overwhelmed by this unexpected assignment. Here, it’s the more visually versatile cable news and it’s just Kabul and environs (no Pakistan), filled in for by New Mexico. Fey’s “Kim Baker” is also given an eye candy frenemy-colleague in the form of Margot Robbie, whose character mostly exists to drag Kim to parties and egg her into romantic misunderstandings. Josh Charles plays the steady Skype boyfriend back home whose reaction to her extended assignment is to sleep around, leading to a funny exchange when he accuses her of letting their relationship “wither and die” like the plants he was supposed to water (“Ew, did you prepare that?” she asks). That opens the door for Martin Freeman’s chauvinist-adjacent, bullshitting Scottish photojournalist Iain to win over an initially repulsed Kim. These standard rom-com mechanics are punctuated by dangerous, deadly jaunts to Taliban battle sites and Kim’s painful negotiations with a sexually harassing attorney general (disappointingly played not by an Afghan actor, but by ubiquitous European Alfred Molina in overacting mode). Since Barker’s memoir takes after the standard, lucrative modern template of a voyage of self-discovery, Fey’s Kim’s arc is also framed as something of a personal journey as she tries to make her own sense out of this blur of war, sex, partying, career-building and adulthood. It might seem crass to set one American woman’s own narcissistic awakening against the backdrop of a horrific, still-ongoing foreign war—particularly considering the aforementioned lack of any substantial side-taking ideology—but the same accusations of glibness could be leveled at an unblinkingly patriotic Howard Hawks war comedy or a smoldering war romance like The Year of Living Dangerously.
WTF’s obviously Hollywood/New Mexico-sanitized version of the war isn’t indictable as exploitation, and the movie reservedly succeeds on its comedic and dramatic merits. Carlock and Fey can’t resist a few habit-formed “lovably frumpy” Liz Lemon-isms (“I only washed the front of my hair!”), but Fey can still find humor in self-deprecation when cursing herself for badly quoting The Terminator at the airport. As a US Marine Corps colonel, Billy Bob Thornton’s ample funny talents are somewhat squandered, though an extended, thoughtful gaze into the distance after a helpful discovery by Kim, and a couple of other line readings, make up for the rest. There’s a pointlessly mean Canadian joke. The film’s nadir has to be blamed on Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, writers of the superb Bad Santa and the Bad News Bears remake, and directors of entertainments like Crazy Stupid Love and Focus. They score the violent rescue mission of a kidnapped main character, complete with shocking killshots, to Harry Nilsson’s heartfelt classic ballad “Without You,” one of the laziest entries yet in the shoddy pantheon of ironically juxtaposed song cues. Whiffs like this aside, WTF moves with fleet, mostly smart precision, and when it’s repetitive, as in the successive similar scenes of shot-doing, strange-fucking “good” times, it’s meant to emphasize the out-of-body “Kabubble” isolation of Kim’s Afghanistan years.