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WTF? Tina Fey’s Afghanistan Adventure ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’

Thelma Adams, Film Editor, March 2, 2016

Let us pause to praise Tina Fey, the Sally Field of her generation, or perhaps the Mary Tyler Moore. She is adorable and whip-smart and a bit insecure, which makes her all the more relatable. But, like George Clooney as he wandered the desert in search of a big-screen career post TV’s ER, Fey hasn’t yet proved herself to be a movie star. Her latest comedy, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, based on Kim Baker’s memoir about going from cable news desk jockey to war correspondent in Afghanistan, won’t change that.

Screenwriter Robert Carlock (co-creator and executive producer with Fey of Netflix’s fantastic Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) does not do Fey any favors. The Kim Baker at the movie’s center is not really a character but a shell for the 30 Rock star to do her typical shtick. As much as I welcome a female-driven narrative, her character is little more than a bored forty-something childless working white woman who seeks her life’s meaning by flying across the world to cover Afghanistan. Baker lacks even a pocket dictionary and the spider senses a tourist would need on a weekend shopping spree in Paris much less war-torn Kabul.

Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (of the execrable I Love You Phillip Morris), in tandem with Carlock, launch the latter day Lois Lane (a character who was much more engaged in her profession) with a cheap sight gag. As Fey’s Baker exits the Kabul airport in a head scarf, she foolishly opens an envelope of cash, sending bills flying all over the road. Locals scramble to pick up the dollars. Silly American!

From that moment the tone wobbles wildly between fish out of water comedy, and grown-girl’s adventure and foreign correspondent mayhem. And, oh, yeah, the action happens against a backdrop of a real gnarly war in a country that may as well be Freedonia in Duck Soup or Borat‘s ridiculous Kazakhstan.

Let us not even get too deep into the problematic casting of Italian-Spanish-English actor Alfred Molina as Ali Massoud-Sadiq, an Afghan government official. It is a choice like casting Emma Stone as a bi-racial Hawaiian or Yul Brynner in The King and I,

What really aches is that this female-driven comedy, written and directed for the screen by men, is part of the tradition perfected by the great Evelyn Waugh in his 1938 novel Scoop. In that, in a clever plot twist, a mild-mannered country garden columnist, William Boot, gets kicked to Africa as a war reporter. In the fictional East African state of Ishmaelia, Boot encounters the war correspondent crazy culture and trips over the conflict’s biggest scoop. What’s the difference between Waugh’s fish out of water novel and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot? The former is hysterically funny and enduring; the latter delivers an occasional chuckle before disappearing to video.

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