Tina Fey Goes for Drama

Tina Fey Goes for Drama

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a movie with neither highs nor lows.


Disgusted with her dead-end job and fed up with a diffident boyfriend, that overflowing barrel of misbehavior Melissa McCarthy undertakes a radical makeover, shipping out as a war correspondent for Fox News—no experience necessary!—in the fish-out-of-water comedy What the Fox?! Hilarity ensues, as the lovable Melissa shoulders another network’s cookie-cutter blonde into a ditch, liberates all the women in a Kabul marketplace by tripping over their burkas, panics our troops while also saving them with the woozily aimed blast of a rocket launcher, and at last finds her soul mate (after an alcohol-induced blackout) snoring right in her own bed, in the inert form of freelance photographer Seth Rogen.

I might not respect What the Fox?! or own up to having laughed at it, but I would pay to see this film, if someone were to make it. In the case of the actually existing Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, I’d be more cautious with my money. Though similar in premise to the imaginary movie, the real WTF is less an entertainment than a medicinal product, marketed by Tina Fey with good intentions, considerable valor, and maybe just a little too much self-regard. Her dark eyes set in a level gaze, her frame held taut, Fey looks intent throughout much of the film, as if straining to make the sale: for the character she’s playing, for the women of Afghanistan and all the world, but most of all for herself.

One of the few women in show business with the power to develop her own projects—and God bless her for it—Fey is both the star of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and a producer, whose frequent television collaborator Robert Carlock tailored the screenplay to her, based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle by former Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker. All credit to Fey for betting on the property. As a high-level TV executive remarks in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Americans don’t want to watch the war in Afghanistan—especially if the actress who brings it to them provides only one part comic bumbling to nine parts feminist self-actualization.

But then, Fey has a hedge against her gamble. Barker portrays the war-correspondent lifestyle as a perpetual frat party; and so Whiskey Tango Foxtrot can begin in audience-appealing mid-rave, with a neon-hued montage of bongs, bottles, and pogoing bodies swathed in a dense atmosphere of horniness. Despite such high jinks, though, the rough laughter of The Taliban Shuffle has mostly fallen silent in a movie that delivers raucousness but little mirth. As for Barker’s contextualizing comments about US policy and methods in Afghanistan, they’ve all but evaporated.

There is a telling exception, which I’ll get to. For the most part, though, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot treats the war as if it were a geographic feature of Afghanistan, where nature has set forth mountains, deserts, and chaotic bloodshed. The conflict, evidently without beginning or end, also seems to lack any meaning—except that it might bring a small measure of freedom to Afghan women (those who want it) and a combination of adventure, sisterly support (more apparent than real), and career advancement to one particular woman from America.

If that woman reads as both “Kim Barker” and Tina Fey, it’s because Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is so clearly designed to show what Fey can do beyond comedy. She previously tried playing for something other than laughs in the not-great, not-bad Admission (2013), and now she risks straight drama for much longer stretches—very creditably, too. On the upside, she’s found an excellent outlet for the qualities that distinguish her comic performances: sharp intelligence and a less-than-optimistic assessment of human nature. Fey is persuasive in scenes that call for Barker to exercise self-control before dangerous idiots and rings entirely true whenever that control lapses, which it does in gradations ranging from impatience and aggravation to righteous indignation and towering rage.

On the downside, the directors of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, have no gradations of their own. They can do well in comedy, as they showed with Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). But when called on to blend Fey’s on-edge performance into a story full of unruliness, happy vulgarity, and violence, their solution is to flatten everything. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a movie with neither highs nor lows. There is not a single moment about which you’d say to a friend, “You’ve got to see this.” The only well-developed motif (this says everything) is a morning ritual of tooth brushing.

Other directors might have done a little better with the material; but I suspect the dullness here is the price of having treated the war as business-as-usual, whether for an American TV reporter who seeks to move up in her profession—standard operating procedure—or for the civilians and combatants who get blown to pieces because, hey, that’s Afghanistan.

Here we come to the exception to the movie’s lack of context—an attempted exception, I should say. Toward the end, on a visit to a Marine who’s been grievously wounded, Fey receives from him the closest thing that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot offers in the way of a history. It’s not much: just a list of interventions by major powers, starting with the United States and going back through the Russians to the British. What can a Marine, or by extension an Afghan, do when caught up in this eternal mayhem? “You embrace the suck,” the man says with forceful good cheer. “You move the fuck forward. What other choice do we have?”

We could have had Melissa McCarthy, that’s what. Compared to the nostrum that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot peddles at the end—a mixture of resignation and careerism, packaged as wisdom—McCarthy’s loud, rude disobedience is probably a mature choice.

* * *

There are half a dozen moments 
you’ve really got to see in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!—more than enough to make this movie worth your while. And on top of them, you get a cartographic puzzle.

It’s a problem of mapping the film’s version of 1950s Hollywood onto historical fact. The movie’s Neverland overlaps with the known world tantalizingly enough that you wonder if the coincidence might mean something, but diverges so frequently that you’re tempted to think the Coens, once more, are just teasing. I might use the latter possibility as an excuse to enjoy what I can and give up thinking about the rest—but if I did that, I couldn’t make sense of the Commies.

They abound in Hail, Caesar! To start figuring out why, I note the one historic event that’s mentioned in the film: the tests of thermonuclear bombs on the Bikini Atoll. That datum gives me a coordinate on which the Coens’ Hollywood and reality would presumably align. It must be 1954 when the story’s central character, producer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), steers a fleet of movies through the shoals of disaster at the fictitious Capitol Pictures.

Eddie seems reasonably impressed when an acquaintance—not a Communist, but a big-talking Lockheed Martin executive—passes him the information about the Bikini Atoll over lunch in a Chinese restaurant; but the news is of only tangential interest, given Eddie’s preoccupation with potential bombs of his own. He’s worried about a biblical epic featuring the studio’s most breastplate-ready actor, of granite chin and brain (George Clooney); an aquatic musical whose mermaid-tailed star (Scarlett Johansson) talks like a long-haul trucker and conducts her sex life to match; and a sailors-on-leave picture headlined by America’s buffest tap dancer (Channing Tatum), draped in tight bell-bottoms and a series of exuberantly male dance partners. These films within the film—each a beautifully realized imaginary version of an actual Hollywood fantasy—match the presumed time frame pretty well. The Robe (1953) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) were indeed products of the hydrogen-blast era; and although Gene Kelly had strutted through his best sailor days several years earlier, he was still grinning at the top in 1954.

On the other hand, 1954 would have been a little late for Capitol Pictures to crank out oaters with a handsome young singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich), or “Good Neighbor policy” musicals with a cheerfully wriggling South American fruit bowl (Veronica Osorio). As for Capitol’s latest drawing-room drama, translated from stage to screen by the preeminent director Laurence Lorentz (Ralph Fiennes), pictures like that had died of natural causes on an RKO soundstage before the United States ever entered World War II.

These other films within the film set up a more elastic relationship between the maps of Neverland and reality. Then you get to the Commies, and, with a snap, the elastic smacks you in the face.

Since it’s impossible to spoil the delirium of Hail, Caesar!, I will reveal that in the film’s 1954, Communist screenwriters, none of them apparently out of work, hang around Malibu with a solemnly pedantic Professor Marcuse, who has been tutoring them in scientific Marxism. Whether the Coen brothers know that the real Herbert Marcuse was a charmingly waggish critic of all determinisms, economic included, I can’t say; but they’re certainly aware that by 1954, screenwriters who were members of the party, or even said to have been associated with it, were unemployable, and as likely to be found in Mexico City and London as Los Angeles.

The tangle grows more complex. It’s clear that Hail, Caesar! must be understood as a speculative fiction, which imagines a world where the blacklist never happened. At the same time, though, and in the same gesture, Hail, Caesar! operates as a sophisticated cultural history. Adopting an argument that Thom Andersen and Noel Burch set out in their 1996 documentary Red Hollywood, the Coens assume that Communists really did work their messages into all manner of studio productions, including pictures like The Robe—the screenplay for which was written, in part, by the Hollywood 10’s Albert Maltz.

I can think of two ways to solve this puzzle (two probably being the minimum required). First, maybe the Coens know perfectly well that the real Marcuse thought that artworks in late-capitalist society—movies, for example—could open potentially revolutionary thoughts and feelings but also shut them down. Given this back-and-forth dynamic, it makes sense to imagine Communists as both blacklisted and not blacklisted, defeated and triumphant. Or maybe, as an alternative solution, we can step back from the revue-like parade of wonderfully executed parodies in Hail, Caesar! and think about the frame story as a genre film in itself: a noir, obviously, starring Brolin as the tough-guy moralist. If you look at Hail, Caesar! that way, then of course Eddie Mannix has to contend with a Communist cell. That’s what the real Hollywood was making its noir heroes do, circa 1954.

Double vision? Triple vision? I’ve lost count of the implied perspectives in Hail, Caesar! All I know is that at the end, Mannix tries to click them into register, making his own little speech about accepting things as they are and getting on with your job. I can accept that advice when it comes from him: Eddie’s job is to manufacture amazing improbabilities. Whether revolutionary or not, they’re a world of fun.

* * *

At once a family drama, landscape film, neorealist exposé, and ethnographic immersion, the remarkable debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a product of the four years that writer-director Chloé Zhao spent on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, getting to know some of its Lakota residents and gathering impressions of the texture of their lives. In outline, the film is simple: It’s the story of a sensitive, fatherless, bootlegging high-school student (John Reddy) who wants to leave the reservation with his college-bound girlfriend (Taysha Fuller) but is blocked, partly by adverse circumstances and partly by his reluctance to abandon his little sister (Jashaun St. John). In form and emotional tone, though, the film is exceptionally rich—by turns raw, dreamy, harsh, sensuous, touching, intimate, garrulous, and elliptical. An award winner at the American Indian and Red Nation film festivals, Songs My Brothers Taught Me has now had its theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York.

Also new to theaters, and diametrically opposite, is Benjamin Dickinson’s Creative Control: a just slightly futuristic satire that takes place in a Brooklyn where the people are all professional hipsters, the apartments are all spanking new glass boxes with river views, and the relationships are all mediated—­mostly on Lucite-slab smartphones that you hardly even see, but now, most excitingly, on eyeglasses that enable you to picture whatever you want and believe it’s real. Filmed in an immaculately chilly black-and-white that suits the theme, but scored with baroque and classical masterworks that nicely undercut the story’s techno supremacy, Creative Control is maybe a little too hip itself, too neat in design and gleaming on the surface. I stayed with it anyway. It’s a morality tale that Kubrick might have conceived as a lark.

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