The title of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is in some ways more interesting to contemplate than the movie itself: Some will immediately recognize it as military-alphabet-speak for “WTF,” while its jammed-together three-word construction may remind others of “Eat Pray Love” or “Zero Dark Thirty” — two movies that, improbable as it sounds, are among the many disparate influences here. Starring a game but tamped-down Tina Fey as a journalist embedded in Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, this haphazard fish-out-of-water dramedy tries to show how the rush of war can become its own weird escape from reality, but never really hits the surreal, satirical groove it’s aiming for. And despite the script’s direct acknowledgment that it’s telling a “white-American-lady story,” the movie never quite shakes off a glib, incurious outsider’s perspective that can tilt into outright cluelessness, particularly where some of its more egregious casting choices are concerned.
While it’s certain to outgross last year’s American-in-Afghanistan disaster, “Rock the Kasbah,” Paramount’s March 4 release may struggle to match the box office returns of Fey’s “Sisters,” which preceded it in theaters by less than three months. “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” aims to recast the actress’s comic persona in a more thoughtful and tonally ambitious light: She’s playing a fictionalized version of the journalist Kim Barker, whose sharply observed 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle” — about her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan — provides the general inspiration for the screenplay by Robert Carlock (Fey’s small-screen collaborator on “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). Signaling the movie’s fast-and-loose way with the truth, Fey is playing not Kim Barker but Kim Baker, who is not a Chicago Tribune reporter but a general news producer for a TV network, stuck writing stories about the dangers of high-fructose corn syrup when, in 2004, a foreign correspondent’s position opens up in Afghanistan.
Being an ideal candidate for the job (childless and unmarried) and feeling ready for something new, Kim bids a temporary farewell to her boyfriend (Josh Charles) and jets off to Kabul, where she lands in a haze of dust, wind and low-grade slapstick: “Cover yourself, shameless whore!” a local woman yells at Kim (helpfully translated with subtitles), shortly before the hapless foreigner loses all her money. Fortunately, her local fixer and translator, Farouk (Christopher Abbott), is on hand to help her acclimatize to the desert temps and the restrictive dress code, though conditions are a bit more lax inside the cramped, frat-house-style quarters that Kim finds herself sharing with the other Western interlopers along for this crazy ride.
Chief among them are Tanya (Margot Robbie), a savvy, sexy reporter who cheerfully describes Kim as “a serious piece of ass” (in Afghanistan, at least); Nic (Stephen Peacocke), the buff, tattoo-covered security contractor who frequently catches Kim’s eye; and Iain (Martin Freeman), a rude, foul-mouthed British photographer whose initially barbed exchanges with Kim suggest it’s only a matter of time before they fall into bed. But then, as Barker’s book made clear, almost everyone has sex on the brain in this hot, sweaty and often tedious outpost: When Kim gets her first embed with a U.S. Marine unit, the first direct order she receives from the stern Gen. Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton) is that she not sleep with any of his men. Even the Afghan prime minister, Ali Massoud Sadiq (a boisterous Alfred Molina), upon being introduced to Kim for the purposes of an interview, wastes little time in making thinly veiled romantic overtures to his new “special friend.”
This is hardly the first time directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have put a playful contemporary spin on romantic-comedy conventions, as evidenced by 2009’s “I Love You Phillip Morris,” 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (perhaps we should be grateful the new movie isn’t called “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot.”), and last year’s “Focus” (which also co-starred Robbie). In this, their first picture centered entirely around a female protagonist, the directors would seem to have set themselves a difficult yet potentially rewarding challenge: a farce driven by equal parts friskiness and firepower, in which the challenges of being an American woman in a female-repressive society dovetail with the complications of a stuck-in-a-rut midlife-crisis comedy — call it “It’s Complicated in Kabul,” or perhaps “What Women Want in Wartime.”
Insofar as Barker’s book limned both the thrill and the tedium of life in a never-ending war zone, it’s hardly a knock that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” often feels rough-hewn and scattershot, as lensed with jagged handheld roughness by d.p. Xavier Grobet, and briskly cut together by editor Jan Kovac. Evenness is not to be expected or desired from a movie that can veer from a fiery shootout with Taliban insurgents to a lazy afternoon hangout back at headquarters, with any number of jittery skirmishes and late-night drinking sessions in between. And given how many tediously well-meaning prestige pictures have approached Third World suffering through the eyes of a benevolent white do-gooder, there’s something refreshing in theory about a movie that attempts, in the grand tradition of “Catch-22” and “MASH,” to offer a jaundiced, cynical take on an impossible situation.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” unfortunately, winds up feeling cynical for all the wrong reasons, and far less authentic than its generally convincing New Mexico desert locations. There’s a difference between seeing the darkly funny side of our nation’s recent geopolitical misadventures and twisting said misadventures into a blandly crowdpleasing formula, and the movie falls into that particular sand trap again and again: Its laughs, quite apart from being patchy and obvious, have the effect of puncturing what little tension or sense of danger Ficarra and Requa manage to muster. And it would take a far defter touch to bridge the gap between the pic’s hostile environs and the contemporary fairy tale it’s selling: Whether it’s a romantic subplot that gets resolved with a harrowing rescue mission, or a self-serving career move that winds up exacting collateral damage, any concessions here to the awful, harrowing reality of life during wartime register as little more than lip service.
Carlock’s script skims the surface of everything it touches, reliably losing interest at precisely the moment things might start to get, well, interesting — and unfortunately, that extends most of all to the character of Kim Baker/Barker herself. The movie unfolds between 2004 and 2006, at a time when the Iraq War is continually drawing attention and resources away from Afghanistan, and Kim, weary of life in the “Kabubble,” grows increasingly unhappy that the network keeps burying her stories — a conflict that carries zero weight, since the movie seems singularly uninvested in the matter of her actual skills as a journalist. Why blame the network when the movie itself can’t be bothered to show Kim’s exclusive interview with an Afghan warlord, but instead cuts away after a few lame gags?
Unlike her partner-in-crime Amy Poehler, Fey has yet to find a cinematic vehicle that really suits her less pointed, more self-effacing comic persona (“Mean Girls,” which she wrote, remains the highlight of her big-screen resume), and there’s something vague and shiftless about her work even in this ostensibly meaty part. Still, hers is a veritable triumph of casting next to the placement of Molina and Abbott in prominent Afghan roles. Never mind that they’re fine actors; Abbott, so wrenching in “James White,” retains his sweetly empathetic presence, and it’s understandable that Molina has become, like Omar Sharif and Ricardo Montalban before him, a master of many ethnic guises. But in the wake of the industry’s recent diversity woes, the decision to cast two white actors — in a movie that’s ostensibly about breaking down barriers and embracing the new— feels all the more resoundingly tone-deaf. What, were all the appropriate actors in Hollywood too busy being killed by Kiefer Sutherland on the latest “24” special? Whiskey tango foxtrot indeed.