(Netflix Streaming, November 2016) There’s something tailor-made for Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s brainy-and-attractive protagonist, a bored lifestyle writer who decides to take up war journalism in Afghanistan at the height of the American intervention over there. Before long, the pace of the job has transformed her into an adrenaline junkie, breaking off her relationship back home and leading her to taking more and more risks. This dramatic arc, coupled with the built-in absurdity of life in war-torn Afghanistan, makes for a first half that’s decently comic, renewing with the geo-sardonicism American comedy subgenre that reached its peak in 2005–2010. Fey is great as her character gradually evolves from bemused fish-out-of-water to grizzled war journalism veteran, and as the film keeps up the more comic aspect of its story. Margot Robbie also makes an impression as a mentor/rival of sorts, while Martin Freeman takes on a less sympathetic turn than usual. It’s very loosely based on true events, but the film wisely sticks to fiction more than reality when comes the time to deliver entertainment. Still, its last half gets progressively less amusing, to the point of dealing with kidnappings, deaths, maiming, betrayals and absolution. While the dramatic arc progression is understandable, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot doesn’t end on the same kind of high notes on which it begins, taking away much of its impact. Too bad, because in many ways this is a good showcase for Fey’s brand of comedy, and a welcome reminder of the impact of the American intervention in Afghanistan—see it with the equally imperfect Rock the Kasbah for another perspective.
(On Cable TV, September 2016) Seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler riff off each other is nearly always fun, and Sisters heighten the pleasure by going to the less obvious route of making Fey the irresponsible sister, while making Poehler play the mature one. The film takes a while to get going, but it becomes markedly more enjoyable once the pieces are assembled for a wild let’s-recapture-our-youth party. Sisters, in many ways, isn’t all that different from other recent R-rated female-centred comedies (Bad Moms especially comes to mind) in blending a bit of raunch, wild pasts, property destruction and acting out against social pressures. The first hour is a bit bland, but the second one lets loose to good effect. One of the interesting things about Sisters is how it doesn’t end as soon as the party has caused thousands of dollars in damages—it keeps going, making amends and repairs. Fey is quite good as the rebellious sibling, while Poehler gets to be just as funny as the repressed one. While Sisters doesn’t amount to much more than an entertaining moment (I’d be surprised if it became anything more than a bargain-bin special, maybe as a bundle), it’s funny enough and doesn’t stop its leads from doing what they do best. Most comedies can’t even manage that, so consider this one successful.
(On Cable TV, December 2013) While it’s refreshing to see a comedy avoid the usual formula for the genre, Admission risks audience sympathies by doing its own off-beat thing. The unusual choices made by the script and director Paul Weitz (who’s done quite a bit better in the past) may be explained by it being an adaptation of a novel, but once it becomes clear that Admission is not going to play by the usual rules of film comedy, much of the film becomes predictable and so is the resignation that it will withhold a complete release. Still, there is a lot to like here: the look at competitive college admission procedures may feel odd to this Canadian viewer, but it’s interesting, and the quasi-satiric look at academia is good for a few laughs. As leads, Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are at their usual most charming selves, with a remarkable supporting turn by Lily Tomlin. It’s amiable enough, and the film does try hard to be something more than a generic romantic comedy. Still, there’s a sense of missed opportunities, of watered-down comedy and intentional misdirection here that makes it hard to wholeheartedly endorse. Admission will certainly do as a good-enough film, but there are certainly funnier, more heartfelt choices out there.
(In theatres, April 2010) There’s something refreshing in seeing a comedy for adults that delivers entertainment while avoiding the crassest demands of teenage audiences. It’s not that Date Night is short on violence, profanity, sexual references and overall bad behaviour, but it refuses to indulge in them for their own sake. The result is, for lack of a better expression, well-mannered. Date Night is seldom mean or meaningless; it features two mature comedians (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) at the height of their skills and it’s obviously aimed at an older target audience of long-time married couples. Date Night has too many plotting coincidences to be a perfect film, but it does end up better than average, and that’s already not too bad. If the script logic is often contrived, it’s far better at making us believe that the lead couple’s reactions are what bright-but-ordinary people would say or do in dangerous situations, rather than what the Hollywood stereotypes may dictate. There are even a few particularly good sequences in the mix, including a deliriously funny car chase through the streets of New York City, and a thinly-veiled excuse for Carell and Fey to dance as badly as they can. A bunch of recognizable character actors also appear for a scene or two, from the sadly underused William Fichtner to an always-shirtless Mark Wahlberg and a pasta-fed Ray Liotta. Add to that the somewhat original conceit of involving a bored married couple in a criminal caper (rather than using the thriller elements to make a couple “meet cute” as is far more common) and Date Night is original enough, and well-made enough to be noticeable in the crop of films at the multiplex. A few laughs, a few thrills and a few nods at the difficulty of staying married; what else could we ask from a middle-of-the-road Hollywood action comedy?