While not earth-shaking, it’s a pretty good film.
Directing team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa are an interesting pair, and of the sort where too few people recognize their names. They first planted a flag in my brain with Bad Santa, for which they wrote the script, and you may also recall the two Cats & Dogs films, which left many reviewers puzzled by how films that looked like they’d be very bad actually wound up being pretty good (those films were both from Ficarra and Requa scripts, too). They only started directing with 2009’s incredibly underrated and underseen I Love You Phillip Morris, and recently have done higher-profile fare like Crazy, Stupid, Love and last year’s Focus.
Despite being a fan of theirs, even I underestimated them, and went into their new film, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, with low expectations. (Part of this is likely on account of its surface similarities to last year’s atrocious Rock the Kasbah, which is no fault of Whiskey Tango’s own.) I’m happy to report that, while not earth-shaking, it’s a pretty good film, and I laughed out loud at it more often than I have at any other movie in recent months.
The film is based on Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which covers her years as a war reporter. Here Tina Fey plays Barker, who is depicted as something of a Cheryl Strayed or Elizabeth Gilbert type, meaning a white woman who is unsatisfied with her life and makes a rash decision to go to a foreign locale to try and find herself. That is to say, Barker had what on the surface was a comfy job writing copy in New York that was read by on-air news anchors, when she herself up and took a job to be an on-air reporter, and in a war zone, no less, for no reason other than needing a change in her life.
While in Kabul, Barker meets an assortment of characters, most of whom are other foreign journalists—Margot Robbie, here reteaming with her Focus directors, plays Tanya Vanderpoel, and is able to use her native Australian accent. Martin Freeman plays freelance photographer, asshole, and potential love interest Iain MacKelpie, and cannot use his native English accent, as his character’s Irish. Stephen Peacocke plays Nic, a Kiwi bodyguard in Barker’s employ, and is another potential love interest. Elsewhere, even many of the Middle Eastern characters are played by recognizable Western faces: Alfred Molina plays Sadiq, the only person in a position of power Barker is able to form a friendship with, and Christopher Abbott (Marnie’s boyfriend in the first two seasons of Girls) plays Fahim, Barker’s sweet-natured driver.
One of the most memorable characters is the always-welcome Billy Bob Thornton, here working with Ficarra and Requa for the first time since Bad Santa, who plays General Hollanek. Hollanek is quick to provide Barker with a sound bite when she needs one, and is the source of many laughs: “This war is like fucking a gorilla; you keep going until the gorilla wants to stop.” You might pick up from that quote that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is more gleefully vulgar than one might expect (Ms. Fey seems to work in PG-13 territory more often than not), and that’s where a lot of the film’s success lies.
Apart from the reteaming of Requa and Ficarra with some MVPs of prior movies, it’s worth pointing out that most of us first familiarized ourselves with Ms. Fey when she was a news anchor on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, so it’s nice to see her portray an anchor once again. She slides into the role so effortlessly that it’s easy to forget how long it’s been since we’ve seen her as a reporter, and it’s also easy to forget that, despite her talent, most of the movies she appears in are frankly bad. Nice to see the surrounding movie deserve her, for once. | Pete Timmermann