Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

**1/2 out of ****

As a movie fanatic, there is something deadly about feeling aware that I am sitting in a theater watching a movie. The seductive quality of a good movie distracts me from my popcorn, soda, and some jerk texting away on their phone. The inept jaw-dropping embarrassment of a bad movie can do the same. It’s when a movie stands in the middle with a generic sense of purpose and almost no sense of identity that my awareness of time and space in the real world take hold and I wonder what I’ll be doing after it’s over –aside from figuring out how to review it.

Journalist, Kim Barker’s book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been loosely adapted into a loosely funny feature called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Tina Fey –who also produced the film. Like a lot of Tina Fey vehicles, this one is compelled by tough subject matter but aims for the safety of the broad appeal she’s always managing to win.

Fey’s character is a journalist who jumps at the opportunity to work as a war correspondent in Afghanistan near the end of 2003, leaving a life and relationship on hold. What is supposed to be a three-month job turns into a three-year experience of intense reporting aided by hard drinking.

Margot Robbie and Martin Freeman both play reporters who simultaneously scare and seduce Fey’s character with the dangerous version of journalism they embrace. At the same time, she’s given wise advice by her Afghan guide who recognizes her addiction to reckless risk-taking.

The guide is played by Christopher Abbott, who along with Alfred Molina does good work in this film with an Afghan character but this seems like the wrong kind of movie to continue the longstanding tradition of failing to employ middle-eastern actors in roles written for them. Hell, “Iron Man” did a better job in this area.   

Glenn Ficarra and John Requa may have been responsible for writing the lowbrow masterpiece Bad Santa, but their turn as directors-for-hire hasn’t proved to be anything worth their time. They shoot the film with competent realism but first-time screenwriter Robert Carlock (TV’s 30 Rock) has created a bunch of material that seems tailored for Fey’s keeping-it-together comedy shtick and tries to focus the humor toward the after-hours debauchery of eccentric journalists as if the R-rated depravity substitutes for the endless missed opportunities of political satire. The combined ingredients of this movie just don’t gel.

Jon Stewart’s 2014 film Rosewater may not have been a great film, but it was driven with more determination and thematic focus from a comedian finding a meaningful way to tackle the threatening anti-comedy of our world’s troubles.

Despite its heavy language and racy scenes, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a rather banal experience that let me know how low its ambitions were quite early on - and it fulfilled them as it only inspired a steady flow of chuckles combined with tension that lacks any real sense of dread. As I feel no sense of satisfaction or outrage, I would say that “WTF” does not live up to its title.

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