The rom-com shuffle

Middle East war comedy dances around satire

Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Cinemark 14 and Feather River Cinemas. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the title of a recent well-received novel by David Shafer. The new Tina Fey movie has the same title, but it’s based on a different book—The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a memoir by Kim Barker.

That might seem a mere literary footnote in the review of a new movie, except that in this case the difference between the two titles also reflects (at least in part) the movie’s somewhat disingenuous relationship with its own subject matter, and with its little piece of recent history in particular.

To be sure, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an apt enough title for a comedy/drama about a female reporter’s “strange days” as a war correspondent in the Middle East. And Taliban Shuffle seems an unlikely moniker for a large-scale entertainment film, including even an amusingly sardonic one like this, with Fey and Margot Robbie in starring roles. The main trouble is that the edginess and irony that seem rife in Barker’s original title seem increasingly marginal in the film’s version of the memoir.

That said, the story still makes a very lively vehicle for its star (who co-produced with Lorne Michaels and worked with a script credited to longtime collaborator Robert Carlock). Barker was a print journalist working for a newspaper in Chicago; Fey’s Kim Baker is a writer for a second-level TV news outlet. In the memoir and the film, Kim sees the Afghanistan assignment as a great career break, plunges into it all with surprising zeal, and then nearly flames out on three years’ worth of the adrenaline rushes that go with 24-hour cycles of risky behavior.

Kim has a hit-and-miss romance with a Scottish photojournalist (a charmingly obnoxious Martin Freeman) and gets friendly guidance, both serious and flippant, from Tanya Vanderpoel (Robbie), a blonde TV reporter and party girl who is younger than Kim but somewhat more experienced.

A buffoonishly randy Afghan official (Alfred Molina) propositions Kim repeatedly. She has teasingly ambiguous relationships with the local Marine commander (a poker-faced Billy Bob Thornton) and an ultra-protective and surprisingly tender Afghan “fixer” (Christopher Abbott). A muscle-bound driver (Stephen Peacocke), a bright-eyed young infantryman (Evan Jonigkeit), and another who is clownish and very tall (Nicholas Braun) contribute complications, large and small, to Kim’s story.

There’s satire aplenty (with the military, the media, corrupt officials, male chauvinists and naïve careerists as special targets), but much of it gets soft-pedaled. By the finish, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot seems intent on retreating to the relatively safe territory of a mildly quirky romantic comedy.