Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Our country is as politically divided as I have ever seen it. Many people on the left refuse to listen to the opinions of those on the right and vice versa. The two sides are so far apart, and have such strong negative feelings for each other, that debate has been replaced by name calling. Writer/director/star Ike Barinholtz’s The Oath is about this very issue.
In its story, the fictional president of the United States has created an oath for American citizens to sign, swearing loyalty to him and their country. Of course, this only serves to drive people even farther apart. Those who sign consider those who do not to be disloyal traitors. Those protesting the oath consider those who sign to be either cowards or Nazis. It is an interesting concept for a dark comedy, with a lot of potential. But Barinholtz tries to bite off more than he can chew and gets distracted by plot developments that confuse his message. Couple that with the unconvincing conclusion and some pretty unpleasant characters and the result is a misfire. The unpleasantness may be part of the point here, however that does not make The Oath any more enjoyable to watch.
The protagonist is Barinholtz’s Chris, who lives with his patient wife, Kai (the underutilized Tiffany Haddish, still the highlight of the movie), and their young daughter. The story takes place during his family’s Thanksgiving week visit (the deadline to sign the oath is Black Friday). Chris, Kai and his sister Alice are liberal (Chris is the type of person who only trusts news from MSNBC and analyzes every word he hears for traces of bigotry). His parents, brother Pat and Pat’s girlfriend Abbie are conservative (Abbie is the type of person who thinks mainstream media is fake news and enjoys mocking people about sensitive issues). There is a lot of possibility in these stereotypical characters for incisive social commentary, but the surface is barely scratched. Really, all this story shows is that there are insufferable jerks on both sides of the political spectrum.
Barinholtz certainly has an ear for how these kinds of people talk to each other. However, he does not do anything particularly constructive with it. Once two government agents show up to question Chris about some oath-related topics, he ends up with a bunch of ideas he does not quite know what to do with. The humor gets mixed with thriller aspects and whatever the movie was intending to say gets buried under the plot. It becomes a depressing enterprise, partly because of its subject matter and partly because of how quickly the concept collapses.
Barinholtz assembled a solid cast, gave them stereotypes to play for satirical reasons, then strands them in a plot that never explores the satire beyond superficial social commentary. Though he has a few funny moments as Chris, the character is so obnoxious that he becomes tiring pretty fast. Haddish’s Kai is the voice of reason, which is boring considering the chaos around her and her own talents. Then there is Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis as the parents, Carrie Brownstein as his sister, Jon Barinholtz (Ike’s brother) as his brother, Meredith Hagner as Abbie and John Cho and Billy Magnussen as the government agents. They are all skilled comedic actors, but the screenplay does not dig nearly deep enough to make them more than irritatingly shallow reflections of the current cultural landscape.
The Oath (90 minutes without the end credits) presents itself like a movie with something to say, but fails to say anything of note. Everyone is angry and extremely politically sensitive. Okay, but that is not successfully mined for laughs or any sort of coherent message. It is a very interesting premise with a couple of smart observations, but the final product is more annoying than entertaining.
2 out of 5
Ike Barinholtz as Chris
Tiffany Haddish as Kai
Carrie Brownstein as Alice
Jon Barinholtz as Pat
Meredith Hagner as Abbie
Nora Dunn as Eleanor
Chris Ellis as Hank
Billy Magnussen as Mason
John Cho as Peter
Written and Directed by Ike Barinholtz