by KOURTNEY PARANTEAU
Like Ben Affleck’s 2012 “Argo,” “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (an unfortunate reference to a crude acronym) attempts to strike a delicate balance between terrors based on real events and light, even moronic, comedy. Like Affleck’s Oscar-winner, “Foxtrot” boasts of its source material during the opening credits but later feels too sleek and rehearsed to be convincingly authentic.
Leaning heavily on Tina Fey’s performance as Kim Baker, a mundane reporter thrown into covering the war in Afghanistan, “Foxtrot” follows her through a baptism by fire. She immerses herself both in her new occupation and in the rowdy social life of war correspondents, their translators and their bodyguards. Baker quickly befriends fellow journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), and the film’s humor plummets into ungratifying pot shots that compare the two actresses’ appearances. However, Robbie’s Vanderpoel and Martin Freeman’s photojournalist Iain MacKelpie do liven up “Foxtrot,” just as Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott’s appearances in Middle Eastern brownface eventually becomes disconcerting. While “Foxtrot” holds together, it never surprises. Baker’s accomplishments are plotted so predictably and with such a lack of luster it’s impossible to celebrate her success.
As in directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s other recent work (“Focus” and “I Love You Phillip Morris”), “Foxtrot” glosses over the severity of its own topic, making the film feel silly and exploitative. The treatment of race in “Focus” and representations of gayness in “Phillip Morris” each indicated a shift in the market’s openness to varying consumer identities. “Foxtrot”’s portrayal of war and female professionalism, though, lacks the freshness those other two films boasted, despite their narrative flaws. “Foxtrot” won’t even hold up as an oddity like “Phillip Morris”; it feels more like a higher-stakes “Bridget Jones Diary” or an “Eat Pray Love” you can bring your boyfriend to see. Moreover, the insistence on its own authority regarding real events saddles “Foxtrot” with a burden of self-importance it doesn’t have the muscle to carry.
In an age where Oprah has bitched out James Frey over his exaggerated “A Million Little Pieces,” and where the Kardashians mold their lives months ahead of time, the trustworthiness of a film based on actual events could be inconsequential. But unlike Frey or reality programming, “Foxtrot” and “Argo” both tether themselves too closely to broad humor, and the slickness of “Ocean’s Eleven”, only to plummet into the dread of wartime explosions. At most, Ficarra and Requa intend the abrupt changes in tone to remind their audience of the abrupt ways panic can ensue. But unlike movies such as “Beginners” or “The Descendants,” “Foxtrot” can’t justify its shifts because it falls short in both genres it’s attempting to straddle.
The jokes, while rapid, are stale, and without a likable cast, could not play with any buoyancy. The drama relies too heavily on montage and pop music to ever come across as masterful. The film stands in stark contrast to the teeth and tenderness with which Hollywood classics (“From Here to Eternity, “Mrs. Miniver,” and others) regarded a war portrayed not only more with more timeliness than “Foxtrot,” but with the grace a topic of great severity deserves.
(“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” opened on Friday, March 4, and is playing at multiple locations around Portland.)