Somewhere at this very minute, Joe Piscopo is probably pitching a comedy in which he travels to Afghanistan for one zany reason or another. Have you noticed? It's the latest unnecessary, completely counterintuitive Hollywood subgenre: "Saturday Night Live" alums looking for laughs in one of the least funny places on the planet.
It backfired on Bill Murray. Last year's Rock the Kasbah was the biggest flop of his career. And the formula doesn't do Tina Fey any favors, either. She's way too good for the half-baked material she's forced to work with here. WTF, indeed.
Based on reporter Kim Barker's 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Robert Carlock's screenplay changes the central character's surname to Baker, changes her profession to TV writer and jettisons any reference to strange days in Pakistan, for no apparent reason.
Feeling a need to shake up her humdrum existence in New York, Baker volunteers for a three-month assignment as a war correspondent in Kabul. The year is 2003, so most of the real action is in Iraq. Which means that most of the action in the movie takes the form of hard partying among journalists staying at the same hotel.
Among these are a hard-partying Brit named Tanya (Margot Robbie) and a hard-partying Scot named Iain (Martin Freeman). For a few minutes, the filmmakers had me believing that Tanya was actually going to prove to be Baker's friend and mentor, someone who'd never stab her in the back to get ahead, and that Iain was destined to be something more original than movie history's most obvious love interest. For a few minutes.
Baker does see action outside her hotel room. Embedded with a Marine unit commanded by a squandered Billy Bob Thornton, she's part of a convoy attacked by insurgents. The encounter gives her a chance to get in touch with her inner adrenaline junkie, bursting from her vehicle with a camera and plunging through gunfire to get the shot. Equal parts The Hurt Locker and Eat Pray Love, the film offers threadbare riffs on the addictive quality of wartime danger and the journey of self-discovery that a newly empowered Baker makes as three months stretch into three years.
Mostly, though, the comedy's 112 minutes are padded with insensitive cultural stereotypes, casting that would make the bigots who inspired #OscarsSoWhite proud and shots of dogs humping. Seriously. I lost count of the number of times directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Focus) cut to close-ups of hounds going to town.
Though, I suppose, that's no more offensive than portraying Afghans as perpetually shrieking loonies who hang televisions from trees and empty automatic weapons into them. Or than giving the two most prominent indigenous parts to white actors. I'm surprised Fey signed on for a film in which Alfred Molina is hired to play a randy government official and Baker's local guide and translator is Christopher Abbott in a beard. You know, the guy who plays Charlie on "Girls."
What, one must wonder, was the mission of this movie? It makes no geopolitical statements, and when it comes to comedy, it doesn't exactly break new ground. A representative gag has Baker covering the first Afghan female to drive a car. "That sucks for women," the reporter cracks after the driver accidentally sets off in reverse and crashes. That kind of thing would've been lame way back when Ricky loved Lucy.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a contradiction in terms: Afghanistan and romantic comedy are mutually exclusive. Worse, it wastes the talents of one of the industry's most gifted women. Baby Mama 2 would have been a better idea — and that sucks for everyone.