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.