James Cole Clay // Film Critic
March 4 marks a glorious day for comedy, as Tina Fey is finally an above-the-title movie star– a real walking, living, breathing movie star. She famously went from comedy writer on SNL to Weekend Update performer, wrote the modern classic MEAN GIRLS and brought the world an incite into her world with the autobiography humor book BOSSYPANTS.
With WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT (military phonetic for WTF) she’s working with patriarch/gatekeeper to the comedy world Lorne Michaels again as executive producers. Fey has learned the business and is well on track to possibly being the spiritual successor for Lorne. She’s definitely achieving the respect, but for now, it’s all about “Tina Fey: Movie Star.”
WTF chronicles the 2011 memoir THE TALIBAN SHUFFLE by Kim Barker– fictionalized in the film as Kim Baker (Fey). She’s a desk jockey in NYC who writes fluff news copy and has a dopey boyfriend (Josh Charles) who is a stand-in for every single WASPY business man you’ve seen since circa 1987. Baker gets the opportunity to get some real on-camera reporting experience in Afghanistan. Like any “sane person,” she changes her life and just heads on out for what is supposed to be a three-month stay that turns into three years.
Directed adeptly by duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, WTF strays from the “Eat, Pray, Love” trope that’s just laughable at this point. Baker isn’t meandering about the Middle East on a quest for peace. She’s there to work her tail off and make a name for herself.
Ficarra and Requa have a knack for blending unlikely characters together into one cohesive narrative. The film feels like adult summer camp. Baker, who, of course, is terrible at her job (at first), is one of few women war reporters in Afghanistan. She befriends fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), who shows her the ropes and makes Baker aware in Afghanistan that she’s a 9 out of 10 in the looks department.
Robert Carlock, who penned the script and served as a writer-producer for 30 ROCK, doesn’t take that statement with any reverence (neither does Baker). It’s played as a joke because who doesn’t love a good compliment. But, of course, it’s an issue in our military when Baker’s highest-ranking source, General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), makes Baker aware of the 4-10-4 rule: “you’re a 4 (looks wise) back at home, a ten here in the military and when you head back stateside you’re back to a 4.” Now that’s deeply troubling. Subverting the idea of a woman’s individual attractiveness has been a part of Fey’s comedic stylings for years. She doesn’t attempt to be the poster girl for feminism with this role– people are just people and all of us have faults.
Baker sparks up a romantic trist with a Scottish photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman). The romance is a bit shoehorned into the story, but Fey and Freeman have undeniable chemistry. This is a role unlike anything Freeman has ever done, teetering the line from drunk arsehole to charming suitor. Baker flirts with the idea of sleeping with her man-candy security detail and is creepily flirted with by one of her highest ranking sources, Afghan Attorney General Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina).
The filmmakers keep the plot moving throughout and Carlock keeps the material fairly apolitical, which is great in an election year most moviegoers are sick of choosing sides, especially in a war that’s an old hat.
WTF weaves through its tonal shifts quite seamlessly. There are a lot of sight gags where Fey plays the white lady out of her element type of schtick. It’s the little moments that work best– we know she’s funny, but her nuances that reel it in exceptionally. Baker becomes more daring and not through a lame montage of her eating traditional Afghan food or shooting an assault rifle; you actually see her trial and error process. At one point she lands an interview where she’s accompanied a press guide named Fahim (Christopher Abbot) to a conservative city where she must hide her face in a burqa. She finds confidence in her burqa, embracing the power it holds upon the men and she becomes more courageous by crashing a rally that turns out to be no women allowed. That’s what’s appealing about WTF: Just when us westerners think we understand and have assimilated to the Middle East, they quickly counter by saying we have lots to learn– a good take away message if there is one.
WTF isn’t going to break down any barriers for feminism or culture clashes; however, the film stays sincere to its fascinating premise in a way that finally gives Fey a vehicle to flaunt her star power without the pomp and circumstance that comes along with being such a talent. Besides the on camera talent, the biggest success come in bite-sized moments between the reporters and the fact that we all as humans have the uncharted ability to adapt.
WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT opens tomorrow.