Whiskey Tango Foxtrot reminds me of those junior high math problems where it didn’t matter if you got the right answer, you had to show your work.

Tina Fey plays reporter Kim Barker in this movie based on Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Covering fluff pieces and going nowhere in her career at home, Kim accepts a three-month assignment in Afghanistan. Her best friend in the field is Margot Robbie and her love interest is Martin Freeman. Fey has been producing brilliant comedy for years, and Robbie and Freeman have both shown they are serious actors who are also more than capable doing comedy.

So with just that setup, it’s easy to judge a book (or in this case, a movie) by its cover. You3 stars expect a movie that might treat its war-torn subject matter too flippantly. And if you skip to the bottom of the math problem, you’ll find that’s pretty much what you get. But that’s why the teacher made you show your work, because how we get to that conclusion is not what you might expect.

Fey is playing a real woman in this role, and she never seems to lose sight of that. She’s doing some serious acting, and when she has a funny line, it’s usually a bit of edgy sarcasm. Which is dangerous, because of the traditional role of women in that culture. The comedic parts don’t ease the tension, they actually ramp it up, and that works really well.

Likewise, Freeman showed in the original British version of The Office that he’s a fantastic comedic actor. Here he plays a world-weary fellow journalist with a bit of a swagger and a reputation with the ladies. Again, you might expect misplaced levity here, but Freeman shows the kind versatility that enables him to go from comedy to playing Watson in Sherlock, to playing The Hobbit. When he’s confronted late in the movie with a decision between a career choice or a romantic choice, it should be the sort of predictable stuff we see all the time in romantic comedies. But because it’s Martin Freeman, we feel his sincerity and we care about the decision.

What brings us to the flippancy you expect from the premise is not the two comedic actors in lead roles, it’s a serious actor. Aflred Molina plays an Afghan government official that Fey’s character interviews in pursuit of her news stories.  In every scene they share, Molina’s character makes a cartoonish, silly overture for her physical affections.  The scenes are played almost entirely for laughs, yet this had to have been a threatening and scary scenario for the actual journalist Kim Baker. Every time Molina appears, the tone of the movie yo-yos. It actually takes away from what Tina Fey is doing in the rest of the movie that she has to interrupt an otherwise excellent performance for this silly and predictable soft shoe.

Add to that the paint-by-numbers resolution of the career-climbing Margot Robbie subplot, and in the end, you do end up with a movie that is somewhat predictable and too flippant about its serious subject matter, even if it doesn’t get there the way you might expect.

Title Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Director Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman
Writer Robert Carlock; based on the book “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Kim Barker
Production Broadway Video, Little Stranger, Paramount Pictures
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