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Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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Tina Fey Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

It’s great to see your favourite actors push their limits and change things up. Case in point, Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher. Who saw that coming? Tina Fey will likely never be that dramatic, but it is nice to see her spread her wings a little bit and try something different. Despite how Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has been advertised, it is more of a dramedy than the marketing department would like you to believe. Taking a break from her Netflix gig, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, as well as her latest comedy Sisters, Fey is the bright star of this film, showing she has more to offer than just laughs.

Based on the memoir of journalist Kim Barker, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the film follows the story of a journalist who leaves her safe, mundane New York job for an in-front-of-the-camera gig in war torn Afghanistan. Fey portrays Kim Baker (the removal of the r reiterating that this isn’t quite Kim Barker) who leaves her boyfriend (Josh Charles) and the luxuries of civilian life behind to arrive at the very basic, yet lively, journalist living quarters, a continent away. Once there she meets another female reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (played by an excellent Margot Robbie) who befriends her, showing her the ropes and providing insight into what her new surroundings will truly mean (you’re in luck! a woman who is a 6/10 in New York is easily a 9/10 in Afghanistan!).

Baker is soon thrown into the middle of war. To her military counterparts she wants to appear brave, though is perhaps a bit reckless in the search for a story. She has run ins with a General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton who overplays to positive effect) from whom she wishes respect, but she also has run ins with gunfire and brushes with mortality along the way. Yet, she makes this place her new home, adjusting to the climate, the risk, the race for the next big story, especially as the war drags on. She is greatly helped by her Afghan assistant Fahim (Christopher Abbott) and learns to make the most of new friends, including a photographer Iain (Martin Freeman). She learns just what she is capable of.

Fey certainly seems more comfortable in this foray into the dramedy realm than she did in 2014’s This is Where I Leave You.  However, that’s not surprising considering the screenplay comes from frequent creative partner Robert Carlock, who has also worked on Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock.  While not the most complete of scripts, it’s easy to see why Fey was attracted to work where she could feel safe both with the writer and in the material itself.  Perhaps, it strays a little too safe.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t offer anything new from a political or war standpoint. While its story is deeply rooted in both things, Foxtrot really is a journey of self discovery for Kim, and one that doesn’t include her needing to find a husband or having a child, a rarity in Hollywood films. In fact one of its most intriguing story lines really comes in the form of the relationship between Tanya and Kim, a glimpse of competitiveness between these two strong female characters, driven, real, and thankfully not played out as a caricature.

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While Alfred Molina, who plans an Afghan government official, Christopher Abbot (really were there no actors of Middle Eastern descent who could have played these two characters?), Thornton and Freeman provide affable and entertaining support, the men are simply there in the background.  It is Fey is who runs the show.  There are moments of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update that pop up during the film, but by the end if you aren’t convinced that Fey has finally managed to bridge the gap between pure comedy and pure drama you likely never will be.  While seeing her match wits with comedic partner Amy Poehler is always great, it’s exciting to see the comedian also display her formidable acting chops.

Directed by duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa who have recently teamed up for Crazy Stupid Love and Focus, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot continues the run of their safe choices as well.  While clearly competent directors, a return to some of their edgier material such as Bad Santa and I Love You Phillip Morris would definitely be welcome.

Overall, Tina Fey, and to some extent Margot Robbie are really what make Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as enjoyable as it can be.  The film has moments where it lags, is predictable, and seems to be holding back a little.  However, a true dramedy on screen is a welcome sight, a genre that sometimes doesn’t know how to hold its own.  Fey elevates and saves the film from its formulaic core and in the process opens herself up for so many more exciting opportunities to come.  So long as she keeps writing Kimmy Schmidt along the way, I’ll be there to see where the next film takes her.  Or rather, where she takes the film.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot will be released in the UK Friday, May 13, 2016

3-out-of-5

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