Alex Casey is a staff writer for New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Movie review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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In this biopic of a war correspondent, Tina Fey proves not everything is a joke.
Tina Fey. Photo / Frank Mas, Paramount Pictures
Tina Fey. Photo / Frank Mas, Paramount Pictures

The industry line is that anything with actress and writer Tina Fey remotely near it turns to gold. Be it 30 Rock, her book Bossypants, or her breakthrough film Mean Girls, she has a canon of work that sits nicely together in the greatest hits of the past 10 years.

Put her at the top bill of any film and people will fill seats faster than you can say Liz Lemon's trademark "I want to go to there".

But does her star power sometimes surpass the material?

Fey's latest appearance is in war dramedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film based on the memoirs of Kim Barker, an American journalist who ditched cubicle life to go to the front line in Afghanistan.

Leaving her safe, cushy job and wet blanket of a boyfriend, Barker is thrown into dingy living quarters with a handful of other journalists chasing war stories during Operation Enduring Freedom in mid-2000s Kabul.

Befriending golden girl correspondent Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), and Scottish larrikin photographer Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), Barker makes a new life for herself in an unlikely place.

Far from writing tedious newsroom copy, she risks her life capturing deadly explosions on film and asks important questions of those most powerful in the operation. Becoming hardened by her surroundings, she negotiates with generals, loses friends and drifts away from American life with each passing month.

The edginess of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot comes in the gunfire, binge-drinking and sexual exploits - but let us not forget that, at its heart, it is a story of a white woman finding herself.

It's basically an Eat, Pray, Love scenario, but with less pasta and lot more landmines. Taking its source material from a genuinely fascinating memoir, the screenplay squanders its potential by delivering a middling mash-up of comedy, thriller and war drama.

Perhaps this is an instance of Fey's charisma overcoming the script. She flexes acting muscles we don't normally see, stepping outside her loveable dork comfort zone.

Her co-stars Robbie and Freeman do a stellar job of portraying the other twisted souls in dusty, booze-drenched "Kabubble". The problem is not with them, but with the film trying to do too many things at once.

It becomes a series of strange vignettes stretched over time, in an often disconnected and meandering narrative.

It was telling that the biggest laugh of the film was for a security guard character with a particularly grating New Zealand accent. His rant about dolphins and white pointer sharks brought a collective sigh of relief that there was something we could comfortably giggle at.

The rest of the film suffers from trying to squeeze comedy out of a gritty, realistic and violent war situation - traditionally not the greatest backdrop for killer gags outside of M*A*S*H.

One more glaring problem: two of the main Afghan characters are played by Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott.

As with the atrocious Gods of Egypt, which came out earlier this year, whitewashing brown roles really sours the taste of a film.

This is by no means the film's only flaw. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has insights into life as a war correspondent but remains an oddly pitched adaptation of a story that, with this treatment, is better left in the pages of a book.


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