Ranking Every Movie I Saw in 2016, #28: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

With this one, we've moved up a level from “movies I don't really recommend” to “films I enjoyed but ultimately felt were a little undercooked or slightly underwhelming.” The sort of film that sort of hides in the back of your mind and you aren't sure how you felt about it until you catch part of it again a year or two later and you say either, “you know, I really like this! This really grew on me,” or “I can't believe how little I am enjoying this,” with really no in-between.*

*My best example of this is last year's Jurassic World, which I started rewatching and my opinion jumped from "what a fun bit of nonsense!" to "God, this movie is just interminable."

This is a very specific kind of film, and I don't mean in terms of content or aesthetic. It was a project Tina Fey picked and shepherded, and her longtime writing partner, Robert Carlock, penned the screenplay for it. It's not just a movie, it is built to be a vehicle for Tina Fey as a funny and gutsy dramatic lead. A skeptical eye would see it as a vanity project, a way for Fey to try and show her range and alter critical opinion of her. A more favorable one would view it as a way for Fey to use her resources and muscle to tell stories Hollywood otherwise wouldn't tell. I'm not sure of the truth, but I will say that those two things are not mutually exclusive.

It's interesting because while the film shows of some of Fey's great talents – a natural scrappiness, her ability to land a joke in any situation, and her hard-won naturalism in front of a camera – it also shows her limitations. Everyone likes Tina Fey, everyone admires Tina Fey, everyone roots for Tina Fey.... but when it comes to empathy, there is always a brick wall that keeps viewers at a slight distance.

That's a thing that's always been there – Fey made Liz Lemon a very sympathetic figure on 30 Rock, but she's never had that gear that takes her from Comedic Actress to Vulnerable Actress, and that's part of the fabric that pushed that show to become the glossy, hard-firing joke machine it slowly became.

In contrast, that's one of Amy Poehler's otherworldly talents – part of the failure of Parks and Rec's famously uneven first season is that we could never buy Poehler as someone to not identify with. The more it leaned on Poehler as an emotional lodestone, the better the show became.

Fey's always been self-deprecating enough in interviews that I thought she fully understood her limitations, and perhaps this project is partly an effort is to overcome them. But she never quite does, and the film is the weaker for it.