Like most of the women writer/actress Tina Fey portrays, the latest is smart, funny and almost completely lacking in self-confidence. Kim Baker has made a life out of settling, writing news stories for better-looking people to read on air and unenthusiastically dating her “mildly-depressive boyfriend” (Josh Charles). Her trajectory, which falls somewhere between “Broadcast News” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” earning the non-ironic title, though delivered ironically in the movie, of “the most American white lady story," leads her to a new location; if not a new outlook.
Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“I Love You Phillip Morris,” “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Focus”), with the help of editor Jan Kovac (“Focus”), employ the usual tricks of comedic timing to bring the script, written by Robert Carlock (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, “30 Rock”), a frequent collaborator with Fey, to the screen. The biggest jump, which leads to one of the most egregious of the movie’s many tone-deaf moments—a bloody attack filmed in slow-motion and set to Harry Nilsson’s ballad “Without You”—puts Baker’s supposed transformation in focus.
But what starts as a fish-out-water comedy that, catalyzed by an extreme environment, should evolve into an existential exploration and finally the epiphany that Baker is usually the smartest person in the room, turns into a silly romantic comedy, albeit one that reverses stereotypical gender roles after Baker calls in her favors to rescue her new boyfriend (Martin Freeman).
Carlock’s screenplay is based on real-life print journalist Kim Barker’s memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Barker, who now writes for The New York Times, was one of the region’s longest-serving correspondents, arriving as a newbie in Afghanistan at the time when most military resources were being diverted to Iraq. It’s described as an insider’s account of the “forgotten war.”
Fey’s Baker, by contrast, simply uses the armed conflict: first to escape her life, and then to coerce a better on-screen job. There’s a slight side story in which she visits a soldier she interviewed early on, and for whom she feels responsible for a transfer and subsequent injury. But this is a flimsy attempt on behalf of the filmmakers to create a connection where there is none, and even the former soldier seems suspicious of her dubious motives. Not to mention the throwaway roles, punctuated by dismal casting, that Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott are shoehorned into.
There is some pleasure to be had from watching Baker, full of adrenaline for the first time, take charge of the camera while under enemy fire. Fey, the perfect foil for Billy Bob Thornton’s scene-stealing general, embeds with the troops brilliantly. She alone notices village dynamics and finds clever ways around cultural constraints. But somehow the filmmakers leave her untouched by all this, still lacking confidence.