Thursday, February 18, 2016

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot": Why Tina Fey?

In Theaters on March 4, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the kind of film that sounds like it is a really good idea on paper, but some further reflection and, indeed, observation of its execution make it evident that there are flaws at the conceptual stage of the project.  This is primarily a Tina Fey vehicle, and the woman that Fey’s character is based on reportedly has a similar disposition and sense of humor, so casting Fey in this role when Paramount optioned the rights to the story seems like a no-brainer.  However, given the type of story being told here, Tina Fey may not be the best choice of actress to have cast, and it’s unfortunate that choice is probably the largest reason why this film can’t escape mediocrity.

Set in Afghanistan, Kim Barker (Fey) is a war correspondent sent over just as the Iraq war starts revving up, primarily because she is childless and without strong family ties.  She is tired of her desk job and her dead-end career writing news copy and takes on Afghanistan as a new challenge.  However, as she becomes more and more involved in local events, Kim starts to take greater and greater risks with her own safety and the safety of her fellow journalists, and she must decide whether this kind of life is sustainable and if the risks are worth the prices she will have to pay.

The film is primarily billed as a comedy, and the comedic sections are where the film shines at its best.  Fey is, as always, quick with a scathing one-liner and has such matter-of-fact flat delivery that it’s hard not to at least chuckle, even when a joke doesn’t entirely land.  Her best moments, both in this film and in her career in general, are those of absurdist feminist observation, which is particularly well-suited to the overtly masculine environment of both Afghan culture and the international safehouse in which she lives.  When the film deigns to be funny, it can be uproarious, because that is what Tina Fey is best at, and that is how the directors can best use her.

But let’s face it; Tina Fey is not a dramatic actress, and a film set in Afghanistan during our military involvement in the region is not going to get away with being a straight comedy, and it would be disingenuous to the story this film was trying to tell to portray it that way.  However, Tina Fey does not carry the serious moments this film well.  The flatness that gives her comedy a unique flavor works against her, only ever coming to life when her character is supposed to express anger or exasperation.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say she is bad, but she is nowhere near as compelling as a leading character needs to be.  The directors clearly acknowledge this fault and try to minimize it by moving Fey into the action of Afghanistan as quickly as possible, but that has the consequence of weakening the character of Kim into just being “Tina Fey in Afghanistan,” only gaining depth in retrospect and by compositing poorly established character moments.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an entertaining film that occasionally breaks out into moments of comic brilliance, but when taken as a whole it isn’t quite as touching or profound as it wants to be.  There’s a compelling story in there, but Tina Fey was probably not the best vehicle to tell it through.  Let her be a comic actress; it’s what she does best.  Leave drama for the method actors who can portray someone other than themselves.

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