Tina Fey’s latest movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, is a frustrating viewing experience. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus, Crazy Stupid Love), the film has the same tone problems that have plagued the duo since their debut film, I Love You Phillip Morris, which is magic they have not been able to recreate. And written by Fey’s long-time collaborator, Robert Carlock, WTF is engineered to allow Fey to shine, only to squander the positive momentum of her performance with some questionable casting and thematic choices. There are some really funny moments in WTF, and some that are grounded in sympathetic humanity, but then there are other moments that are crushingly tone deaf. It’s a mixed-bag movie, not terrible but not great, and only really worthwhile for diehard Fey fans who can grit their teeth through the questionable stuff.
Fey stars as Kim Baker—the script was adapted from Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle—a journalist in New York City whose career has plateaued. When her news company needs new correspondents to send to Afghanistan because all the big-name talent has left to cover the newly engaged Iraq war, Kim leaps at the chance to leave her humdrum NYC life behind. She arrives in Kabul and is quickly inducted into the fraternity of journalists, and I do mean fraternity. Foreign correspondents congregate in Kabul, which they refer to as “Kabubble”, and throw loud raucous parties and generally behave like out of control college students.
In “Kabubble” Kim meets the Lara Logan-esque Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), a fellow female journalist with whom Kim has a frenemy-type relationship. This friendship could have been better fleshed out—Carlock and Fey clearly don’t want to make the two women enemies, but there are competitive facets to their job. They’re both under pressure to deliver stories to their respective news services, but instead of spending some time examining how they build a friendship that can withstand the reality of their work, we get a romantic subplot featuring Martin Freeman as a war photographer.
Not every movie needs a romance, and WTF is a prime candidate for a romance-free film. There’s enough going on without worrying about whether or not Kim is really in love, or if it’s just an adrenaline response to her high-pressure life in “Kabubble”. Kim is genuinely interested in the people of Afghanistan, and has a real desire to tell their stories, especially those of the women living under such a repressive regime as the Taliban. But because we also have to worry about Kim’s love life, scenes in which Kim could be gaining a larger cultural awareness and greater empathy for these women are undermined by relationship babble. It turns WTF into yet another white-lady-finds-herself-in-an-exotic-locale vacation movie, like Eat Pray Love.
And then there’s the casting of two white actors, Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott (James White, Girls), as Afghan characters. Really? REALLY? Now, in 2015/16, THIS is the choice that is made? Abbott actually gives a wonderful performance as Kim’s local “fixer”, Fahim, but it doesn’t matter because the casting completely derails WTF. Whatever salient points and emotional truths it gets are undone by the tone deafness of this choice. Ditto for the finale, a completely ludicrous search and rescue plot that does more to turn an audience against Kim for recklessly endangering her life and the lives of the soldiers tasked with protecting her than it does to create suspense.
WTF is put together well enough, but some of the choices made at the filmmaker level completely undermine it. At times it feels like it’s trying to be a romantic comedy for our cynical, burned-out-on-war age, and at others it feels like it wants to be a scathing satire like In The Loop. (Ha, not even close.) It’s too tonally uneven to really get off the ground, and ultimately it wastes Tina Fey’s best performance in a film to date.