It’s perhaps safe to say that, at this point in her career, Tina Fey is doomed to star in minor, likable comedies, ones that are enjoyable but never great, perfectly watchable but never truly memorable. Her filmography is peppered with these kinds of films and it’s hard to imagine her ever doing anything more. Or, maybe more accurately, needing to do more, since there’s a space in cinema for likable, watchable, enjoyable films. Fey’s latest vehicle, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (“WTF” in the military’s phonetic alphabet), falls firmly into this mold. Fey’s enjoyable in it, it’s occasionally witty and I was perfectly content watching it unfurl, yet, its various pieces never quite coalesce into anything better than perfunctory.
Fey plays Kim Barker, whose memoir, The Taliban Shuffle, the film is based on. Kim is a bored journalist, fitfully tired of both her job and her “mildly depressive” boyfriend (Josh Charles). She jumps at the chance to head to Afghanistan as a war correspondent, something she has zero experience with. Taking place while America’s second war in Iraq ramping up, Afghanistan is seen as some sort of second-class war, one that the public is bored with, and which Kim’s bosses don’t want to send experienced reporters to cover. So with little experience other than her job as a copy editor, Kim heads off to Afghanistan.
The plot follows a fairly predictable arc, as our protagonist at first finds herself — despite good intentions — bumbling her way through the country, often accidentally finding herself in the role of the Ugly American. But as the film progresses, Kim finds her place in front of the camera, while slowly grasping the full scope of the war she’s covering. In this sense, the film wants to work as a satire, but never quite has the teeth to make a truly meaningful point. Yes, war is hell, but in the world of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, it’s an accessible kind of hell, one that’s going to make all the right points but not really challenge anything.
Unfortunately, this is simply the kind of film that directors Glenn Ficara and John Requa seemingly want to make. The movie’s scattered and humdrum approaches dull much of what Whiskey Tango Foxtrot wants to say. Kim’s complicated relationship with womanizing photographer (Martin Freeman) turns pat and convenient in the final reel. Her interactions with fellow reporter Tanya (Margot Robbie) transform into an unnatural rivalry that feels arbitrary and little more than a device invented to move the plot along. Nothing quite settles into place, either as a whole or as a consistent tone, undermining the film’s ability to make a coherent and pointed statement. As a comedy, it’s serviceable and occasionally clever, and that’s fine. But beyond that, when the film wants to say something important, don’t expect much. Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images.