After Rock the Kasbah and Our Brand is Crisis, the demand for satire set in foreign countries that don't like us isn't what it used to be. Not that it was ever high in the first place.
That means a lot of moviegoers won't be inclined to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a genially irreverent comedy about cable news journalists set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How genial? The movie stars Tina Fey, who's unlikely to push many buttons or envelopes.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot casts Fey as Kim Baker, whose single, childless status makes her perfect for assignment in a war zone. Baker is based on Kim Barker, a Chicago Tribune overseas reporter whose raucous memoir The Taliban Shuffle is tailored for Fey by her 30 Rock collaborator Robert Carlock. It's a good fit, a stretch yet not unfamiliar; Liz Lemon less insecure.
Kim leaves behind her boyfriend (Josh Charles) for Kabul, where hotels are jammed with media types, killing time and brain cells with donkey porn, strip clubs and raves. It's a debauched scene, blowing off steam while awaiting the next mortar to drop or IED to explode, to capture on video. In these male-centric surroundings, Kim is a 10, she's told by a 15, rival journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie).
Kim's sexual tensions mount as months go by, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is much more than groin humor. There's a M*A*S*H-like insolence about these overgrown children at work and play, a boundary-nudging tenor that directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote Bad Santa, are clearly comfortable with.
Carlock's screenplay leads Kim in several directions, into the field where a blunt general (Billy Bob Thornton, excellent) wants her to stay out of the way. Kim's evolving relationships with soldiers, security guards and her translator-fixer Fahim (Christopher Abbott) are rotated too often for narrative comfort. A subplot involving a warlord (Alfred Molina) attempting to seduce Kim takes the long way around to a payoff.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot loses momentum in its second half, when Kim settles into a relationship with a prickly Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman). It's a late-arriving theme to hinge a screenplay resolution upon, underlining the first half's frayed composition. Why doesn't much of what we saw then matter now?
Fey makes her best movie impression yet outside of pure comedy, striking a nice balance in Kim of personal uncertainty and professional intrepidness. Wisecracks are her manner of coping, an advantage of wit over nearly everyone else in the room.
Certainly this could've been a bolder, angrier movie than what it became. After so much grimness in movies about U.S. military actions in the Middle East, it's good finding one dedicated to the kind of humor getting a lot of folks through over there.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.