Screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver know how to get the party started and keep it lively.
There is no doubt that Tina Fey has enriched our lives. She wrote Lindsay Lohan’s last watchable (and best) star vehicle, 2004’s “Mean Girls.” Her Liz Lemon on the sitcom “30 Rock” gave us the perfect upgrade on swear-word substitutes with “Blerg!” Her scathingly brilliant Sarah Palin impression on “Saturday Night Live” helped save the country from four years of the real thing in office. She and her co-host Amy Poehler injected comic relevance into the Golden Globes and turned a moldy awards show into must-see TV.
Even just her few faux-tipsy moments alongside Best Production Design co-presenter Steve Carell during last Sunday's Oscar telecast provided a burst of screwball freshness when Fey described the set of “The Revenant” as “the thing where a bear lives” and mangled the phrase “the nona-mees are…”
Therefore, it is painful to observe that this talented woman has yet to show us she has what it takes to be a truly compelling presence on the big screen. The problem is, Tina Fey is always Tina Fey. Even when parodying the former governor of Alaska, she can’t let go of that wicked glint in her eyes. Her film debut as a math teacher in “Mean Girls” is still her most satisfying cinematic performance.
Never has this handicap been more apparent than in what is being offered as Fey’s chance to dig deep a la fellow “SNL” alum turned leading lady Kristen Wiig and surprise us with her dramatic chops in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." The Afghanistan-set dramedy is based on an insightful, entertaining 2011 memoir injected with “M*A*S*H”-style irreverence by Chicago Tribune war-zone journalist Kim Barker. But much has been tweaked in translation. The title went from “The Taliban Shuffle” to military slang for WTF. Barker has been reborn as Kim Baker. And her occupation has been re-invented into a TV news correspondent, presumably to provide better on-the-job visuals than watching someone type.
It has been reported that the actress, who is also one of the producers, was drawn to the material after a New York Times book review noted that Barker portrayed herself “as a sort of Tina Fey character.” If that just isn't free license to simply play yourself, or at least your familiar persona, I don’t know what is.
Nonetheless, it is initially mildly entertaining to see this 40-ish fish-out-of-water character push herself beyond her unsatisfying comfort zone both at work and in her private life (Josh Charles, who pops up occasionally as the boyfriend she left behind, might as well have “future cheater” tattooed on his forehead). Culture shock strikes immediately after she lands in Kabul, where she is told the air is filled with feces. There are easy laughs to be had at the outset when her head scarf slips off and a native woman sneers (with the aid of subtitles), “Cover yourself, you shameless whore.”
Luckily, Kim’s translator-driver-and-all-round-guardian-angel, Fahim (American actor Christopher Abbott, who recently impressed in “James White,” assumes a questionable Afghan guise), is there to guide her through local customs and dangerous situations. But once she arrives in the rowdy “Animal House”-style residence set up for foreign members of the press, it is clear that the film could have easily been called “Frisky Tango Foxtrot.” Tanya (Margot Robbie of “The Wolf of Wall Street”), a slinky blonde British on-air journo, welcomes Kim and immediately assesses her attractiveness to men—declaring her “Kabul cute” while assuring, “Here, you’re a 9.”
While there are several scenes where Kim puts herself in harm’s way to get her story—cars explode, bombs go off, gunfire rings out, a gathering of men get angry when she tries to hide a camera under her traditional full-body cloak while filming them—the narrative often feels more like a raunchy sex comedy than a bird’s-eye view of the on-the-job hazards that the actual Barker routinely faced. Instead, when Kim firsts meets Billy Bob Thornton’s crusty general while covering his Marine unit, he warns her not to sleep with his men. Tanya’s first question after meeting Kim is if she would mind if she slept with the men assigned to protect her. The lusty Afghan prime minister (Alfred Molina, a British actor of Italian and Spanish descent who has turned into a modern-day Anthony Quinn) would grant the rookie special access if she becomes his “special friend.”
True sexual tension arrives in the form of Martin Freeman’s rudely rogue-ish Scottish shutterbug and it’s only a matter of time before bickering turns into bedding. Actually, the casting goes a long way to camouflage the flaws that flare up, and screenwriter Robert Carlock (who worked with Fey both on “30 Rock” and ‘”Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who wrote “Bad Santa” and helmed “Crazy, Stupid, Love”) know their way around bawdy behavior and all-night carousing. What they can’t do is create believably harrowing action sequences (with New Mexico ably filling in for the Middle East). Meanwhile, Fey and Robbie’s makeup never smudges and rarely do they break a sweat.
Is “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” a horrible movie about a white outsider plopped in the middle of Afghanistan? No, that would be last year’s “Rock the Kasbah.” But neither does "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" fulfill its assigned duty to provide evidence of Fey’s versatility. After seeing Carell and her together on the Academy Awards, perhaps they could remake “Born Yesterday” for these Trump-ish times. Fey playing dumb? Now that would be a challenge.