Tone means everything in comedy — any kind of comedy. With a rollicking black comedy set in a war zone, the tone necessarily goes plural as the story careens from the abruptly tragic to the blithely, weirdly funny and back again.
"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" learns this lesson the hard way, and while it's no disaster, it's oddly indistinct and uncertain. The film stars Tina Fey as a battle-untested TV news producer and writer thrown into the war correspondent game in Afghanistan, in the middle of the last decade. Here and there, the "Crazy, Stupid, Love" directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa capture the keyed-up camaraderie of its setting and the dislocating strangeness of what it must be like to drop into a U.S.-led conflict as a reporter inside the mess yet outside it. Alas, most of the film settles for comic dithering and hoked-up romance under fire.
"Guess I'm a war reporter now," Kim Barker tells her longtime boyfriend (Josh Charles) early in "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." Once in Kabul, Kim finds a patient, reliable colleague in her local fixer, Farouk (Christopher Abbott). The Western media covering the war in Afghanistan, initially quiet and then increasingly bloody, live in a ramshackle hostel of sorts. Kim's pals include the hottest babe in country and Kim's unofficial relationship coach, Tanya (Margot Robbie, who someday will play someone to be trusted, even for a second); the oft-shirtless security officer Nic (aptly named Stephen Peacocke); and, most important for the eventually single and available Kim, the brash but sweet freelance photographer Iain (Martin Freeman). He loves the carousing, high-adrenaline life he's living; it appeals to Kim as well, up to a point.
That point becomes the point of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot." Shot largely in New Mexico, doubling for Afghanistan, the film written by Robert Carlock (Fey's collaborator on "30 Rock" and "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt") hinges on the incongruity of Baker in Kabul and beyond as she learns to cover the story and finesse interactions with the troops (Billy Bob Thornton plays another of her patriarchal protectors) as well as with the horndog Afghan prime minister (Alfred Molina).
Carlock based his script loosely on "The Taliban Shuffle," former Chicago Tribune correspondent Kim Barker's 2011 memoir. A few things made the transfer from page to screen, though a lot did not, including Barker's time in Pakistan. The inventions are many; that's how it goes with adaptations. This is not a documentary. What's missing is important, though. In her memoir, Barker's perspective and wit managed to keep the chronicle just this side of glibness. The movie exists on the other side. Everything that happens in Afghanistan is narratively engineered to make Fey's character look good. There's a can't-lose swagger to Fey's performance here, at odds with the role as written.
You can sense it in the movie's poster image, which is also the cover shot for the reissued and retitled paperback edition of Barker's memoir. There's Fey, reporter's notebook and pen in hand, the other hand adjusting her sunglasses, her hair tousled by the wind just so, while a fireball lights up the background. It's almost a gag, that photograph: preening TV personality, her back to the real story. But it's not; it's not meant to be funny. It's packaging the film's obvious selling point. The film itself feels uncertain, compromised and tentative. Those are very different qualities than brash, or bracing, or provocative.
'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'
MPAA rating: R, for pervasive language, some sexual content, drug use and violent war images
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release
Phillips is a Chicago Tribune film critic.