The title of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s strained dark comedy, in which the war in Afghanistan serves as the backdrop to an American woman’s self-actualizing journey, is the military phonetic-alphabet rendering of WTF. The mild Islamophobia and highly questionable casting choices in the film call to mind other texting abbreviations – namely, AYFKMWTS and GTFOOH. In the end, though, it’s an armed-forces acronym dating back to World War II that best describes this dismal project: FUBAR.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is based on reporter Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan (which I haven’t read). In the big-screen adaptation, the first “r” is dropped from the author’s surname (as are her escapades in the second country of the title), and her career is slightly tweaked: Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a writer for a cable news channel in New York, not a print journalist (Barker, formerly with the Chicago Tribune, is now on the Metro desk at The New York Times).
The film signals Kim’s sad-lady status with the bottle of over-40 multivitamins on her desk, the exercise bike she rides in a grim windowless room and the “mildly depressive” boyfriend (Josh Charles) who never seems to be in town. Kim signs up for a three-month assignment in Kabul in 2003, a post she stretches out to years. In the Afghan capital, the diffident journo blooms: She becomes a confident on-air correspondent, pounds both scotch and a Scottish freelance photographer (Martin Freeman) and, in what has become a prerequisite for all Fey vehicles, cabbage-patches to ’90s old-school jams.
WTF is essentially Eat Pray Love for embeds, filled with jokes and sight gags that are repeated to ever-stonier spectator silence. The wearying, self-explanatory looks-inflation system known as “Kabul cute” – applicable to women only – is clarified to Kim twice in five minutes of screen time, first by a fellow reporter (Margot Robbie) and then by a Marine colonel (Billy Bob Thornton); though she picks up Pashto and Dari quickly, the new arrival to Afghanistan, it would seem, has trouble grasping the difference between the numbers 4 and 10.
Incessant shots of mongrel-humping typify WTF’s disregard for the battle-ravaged Asian nation – which is actually played by New Mexico. When Kim remarks to her fixer, “I know you like your women to be beautiful, mysterious IKEA bags” – a dig followed by an artlessly inserted sequence of a group of women in blue burkas walking in the square – we are meant not to be appalled by her bigotry but to chortle along with her forthrightness. More distressingly, the actor playing Kim’s intermediary is Connecticut native Christopher Abbott (best known for Girls and James White), who apparently possesses the lone qualifications Hollywood demands to portray an Afghan native: the ability to grow a thick beard and look good in a pakol. Abbott’s Fahim Ahmadzai, at least, is constructed as a noble if one-dimensional character. In contrast, Alfred Molina, as the corrupt, concupiscent attorney general, the other prominent “Afghan” in the film, has been instructed to play as broad as the Khyber Pass.
Ficarra and Requa’s directorial debut, the zippy same-sex romantic comedy I Love You Phillip Morris (2009), which they also wrote, provided lead Jim Carrey with one of his greatest roles; the actor’s manic energy, refocused in that film, was divided equally between id and libido. WTF, however, confirms what’s been obvious ever since 2004’s Mean Girls, Fey’s first major film outing: that the performer and writer, who’s done so many outstanding things on the small screen, has frequently been ill-served by the big one.
Fey’s movies, WTF especially, not only reveal how limited her acting range is but also lead to extreme cognitive dissonance, as they’re often the kinds of pandering cultural products her TV shows would skewer. Unbreakable Kimmy Schimdt, like 30 Rock before it, brilliantly calls attention to the pathologies and absurdities of white privilege (the earlier show giving us the immortal phrase “white nonsense,” delivered by Sherri Shepherd’s Angie Jordan). WTF, which was produced by Fey (along with Lorne Michaels and others) and written by Robert Carlock, a chief collaborator on Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock, only lightly jabs at its heroine. “That is officially the most American-white-lady story I’ve ever heard,” a Lebanese colleague (Sheila Vand) tells Kim after she constructs a dopey metaphor involving that stationary bike seen in WTF’s opening minutes to explain why she’s in Kabul. But the American white lady’s story is the official one here, the horrors she is surrounded by mere backdrop to her self-improvement.