“War zone rom-com” is one of those movie concepts that, like “incest Western” or “Holocaust farce,” sounds like an idea maybe better left untapped. And Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t make an easy case for itself off the top; both the rom and the com fumble to connect, and the chaos-racked country it’s set in feels uncomfortably like set dressing for yet another white-lady voyage of self-discovery. (The cultural-sensitivity angle is also more than a little problematic, but more on that later.) Still, the script, based on journalist Kim Barker’s acclaimed 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has some great source material, and it eventually starts to settle into a more natural groove.
Tina Fey stars as the nominally name-changed Kim Baker, a fortysomething New Yorker living a life of, if not quiet desperation, at least chronic dullness: Her TV newswriting job is uninspiring, her boyfriend (Josh Charles) is “mildly depressive,” and the only living things she’s responsible for besides herself are a sad set of houseplants. So when her network bosses call for warm bodies on the ground in the Middle East, she decides to cash it all in and take an open-ended correspondent post in Kabul. Arriving in 2002 with no real training and even less knowledge of local customs, she finds herself tossed directly into the deep end — embedding with a flinty general (Billy Bob Thornton), following leads down dark alleys and dusty back roads, and learning to be an on-air reporter as she goes.
She also falls in quickly with the city’s expat community: a motley crew who treat their coed lodgings like a sort of mercenary summer camp with booze (there’s a lot of whiskey in this Whiskey Tango), promiscuity, and seemingly nightly dance parties. Kim still has the depressive boyfriend back home, but as Australian adrenaline junkie/blond goddess Tanya (Margot Robbie) helpfully informs her, “In New York, you’re like a six, seven? Here, you’re a nine — borderline 10.” (That, of course, makes Tanya approximately a 15.) Soon more than a few suitors begin to circle, including a rakish Scottish photographer named Iain (Martin Freeman, who somehow makes even dolphin-sex jokes sound charming).
Fey leans hard — too hard, early on — on Kim’s cluelessness and her own wry, self-aware Fey-ness; she’s essentially a braver Liz Lemon in a flak jacket, minus the eyeglasses and the songs about cheese (see sidebar). And it’s more than a little disappointing that two major Afghan supporting roles are filled by obviously non-Afghan actors: Kim’s local translator (played by Girls’ Christopher Abbott) and a government minister (a mugging Alfred Molina). Maybe codirectors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus; Crazy, Stupid, Love) just thought they had the best guys for the job, or maybe they both had an Internet blackout during the whole Emma Stone Aloha thing; either way, it feels like a misguided choice at best. What work better in the movie are mostly smaller moments: the jokes that land, the rapport between the reporters, and all the weirdly ordinary ways people manage to find a new normal, even in the most WTF circumstances. B–