Tina Fey stars as a TV journalist embedded in Afghanistan in the new war semi-comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which she also produced. Very loosely adapted from reporter Kim Barker’s much darker 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle, the movie offers Fey her most challenging movie role yet: an appealingly flawed, bored, unattached Manhattan copywriter out to shake up her life and her “mildly depressive” boyfriend (Josh Charles). It’s a culture-shock comedy, a kind of Our Brand Is Crisis spliced with Eat, Pray, Love with a side of Private Benjamin and Sex in the City–and, as scripted by Robert Carlock (30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love), it’s just about as unfocused as a hodgepodge of tones and genres could be.
Fey’s character volunteers to go for three months where she is completely unprepared to be: war-ravaged but relatively forgotten Kabul, where the Afghanistan air, she is told, is “heavily polluted with feces.“ Almost everything she does there, despite trying to be politically correct and sensitive, makes her a very ugly American, putting her colleagues at risk and stomping all over Islamic culture.
Fey is, as always, enjoyably snarky and above-it-all, but no way does she have the chops to pull off playing all the different levels here, recklessly leaping out of a Humvee during enemy gunfire to video the action, figuring out how to dodge a horny Afghan prime minister (Alfred Molina, in a lovely performance), pondering a hook-up with her sexy Aussie security escort (Stephen Peacocke) or letting herself fall hard for a callous, bed-hopping photographer (Martin Freeman) who does an unconvincing about-face and turns into a sweetie pie, probably because some movie executive thought that would be an audience-pleaser.
Fey plays some her snappiest scenes opposite Margot Robbie, who is terrific as a veteran fellow reporter with whom, for purposes of the plot, Fey’s character becomes a rival. That tired old cliché—women must be rivals—is a letdown in a movie that is often good at skewering the woman-hating culture so rampant in the military.
In the end, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is too watered-down and formulaic to be what the source material suggests it could have been: a pitch-black surreal comedy on the order of Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H.