When seeking authenticity, New Mexico is no substitute for Afghanistan

When seeking authenticity, New Mexico is no substitute for Afghanistan

Taken from journalist Kim Barker’s lively account of covering the war in Afghanistan, this walks the line between comedy and drama somewhat clumsily, with comedian Tina Fey in the lead role. Kim Baker (name altered slightly for the movie version) isn’t as desperate as, say …. Elizabeth Gilbert when she wrote “Eat, Pray, Love,” but the trajectory is pretty much the same.

Bored with her job as a television news producer Kim accepts the assignment to travel to Afghanistan for the thrill of it. She leaves her boyfriend (Josh Daniels) behind for what she thinks will be a short-term stay. But as the movie reveals, she spends almost three years covering the war, getting drunk — a lot — and almost getting blown up a time or two

Her rival (because you just need one in these kinds of movies) is Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie), an Australian journalist who will go to great lengths to get a story. Eventually Kim’s love interest becomes Scottish reporter Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman) who is a bit of a cad until he hooks up with her.

Written by Fey’s sometime writing partner Robert Carlock (“Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) there is nothing really wrong with the movie except its unwillingness to define itself. One minute everyone is drinking and dancing in the “Kabubble” — the nickname for the journalist quarters — and the next minute Kim’s imbed patrol is blown up and she’s staring down at the severed leg of the Marine she was just talking to.

In addition to the obligatory characters of Tanya the frenemy and Iain the boyfriend, the stereotypes abound, including a wacky Afghan official played by Alfred Molina who develops a crush on Kim and expects her to tumble into the ornate bed in his office in return for a good lead. The gruff Marine captain, played by Billy Bob Thornton, can’t decide if he thinks Kim is a pain in the neck or a potential prize-winning reporter. He’s great in the role until he disappears about midway through.

With New Mexico subbing for the arid desert country of Afghanistan, Fey and company never had to venture near the war zone. Maybe that’s why this movie feels so unauthentic. The characters just amble along as if on mood stabilizers where the highs are just so so and the lows not very low at all. Even when Kim discovers her boyfriend is cheating on her while she’s away, she shrugs it off faster than you could fire off a round from a Kalashnikov. Half a minute later, she’s ogling her New Zealand beefcake bodyguard.

There are halfhearted attempts at gravitas regarding the sacrifices of combat and the extreme cultural differences, but they seem so obligatory that they hardly register. As much as I like Tina Fey, and she is about the only bright spot in this, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is nothing to break into a happy dance about.

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