2018 | rated R | starring Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn, Carrie Brownstein, John Cho | written & directed by Ike Barinholtz | 1 hr 33 mins |
With The Oath, Ike Barinholtz graduates from his role as the go-to guy anytime a movie needs an obnoxious “everyman” to writer/director and character actor. It’s an ambitious but muddy film that gets derailed into genre territory instead of charging forward into the naked, politically charged satire it begins as.
The premise is ripe. Barinholtz mixes partisan political, in a climate in which everyone has made their camp and dug into it, with the uncomfortable family dynamics brought on by Thanksgiving. The Oath is all those news stories about how to avoid “talking politics at the holiday dinner table” brought to life. The film’s competent micro-budget filmmaking, solid performances (Tiffany Haddish is very good when not trying so hard to be funny), interesting premise and dialog that realistically realizes how political conversations devolve into name-calling carry it a long way; however in retrospect all of the issues that make its points hazy are present in the very first scene.
Barinholtz may have wanted to satirize the “divided American” political discourse, but instead of centering that discourse over a real world political issue and being forced to argue both sides of it, he makes one up – one more fitting of the New Founding Fathers of America in The Purge than anything resembling contemporary debate. The titular Oath is a new White House policy that requires citizens to sign a pledge of allegiance to the president and the country in order to receive certain patriotic perks. It’s a soft mandate that quickly evolves into a dystopian police state where the military guns down protestors, dissenting celebrities (Seth Rogen!) disappear and agents go door to door enforcing it.
In the first scene Barinholtz writes and directs himself as Chris taking off his shirt and flexing his pecks for his wife, Kai (Haddish). It’s unclear if this is being played for laughs or trying to show the closeness of their relationship or pitching himself as a damn sex symbol. That tonal misfire is emblematic of the blanks ringing all over the movie. The Oath does a solid job of depicting Barinholtz’s view of the problem with, as they say, both sides. He shows the extended conservative family immediately signing the oath under blind patriotism and making uninformed arguments based on whatever they heard on the internet. He shows Chris as rude, self-righteous liberal, who is quick to curse out anybody who doesn’t agree with him instead of articulate a viewpoint.
So here is where it gets muddled. If Barinholtz wanted to make a satire of both sides he sunk that by making the political policy at the core of the argument such an outrageous authoritarian injustice. Barinholtz would probably say it doesn’t matter. That’s the satire. You could ramp up the issue to absurd heights and people will still support their side – but in the scenario this movie presents there is only one side. At which point the movie becomes about conservative blind political loyalty. Because ultimately he can’t help himself. This is Hollywood. This is a vanity project. Barinholtz can’t even see what might be caustic about extremism on his side so he makes the issue at hand so extreme that Chris – boorish as he may be – has to be in the right.
The oath of The Oath is a strawman argument.
You could argue that all satire is arguing a strawman to some extent. Presenting absurdity to highlight absurdity. But Dr Strangelove doesn’t really think that generals are going mad over fluoridation and Fight Club doesn’t really think blowing up credit card buildings is the answer to masculinity. Barinholtz is arguing something here. A version of The Oath that isn’t hinged on a strawman, that does go all the way with satirizing political tribalism goes further into an escalating argument between Chris and his family, allowing the original source of the argument to fall into irrelevancy as each side holds down to being right for right’s sake and goes to increasingly absurd lengths to treat their other family members like combatants in a house that goes from Thanksgiving to war zone.
The third act takes an even more bizarre and hazy twist, when two CPU agents (the homeland security enforcers in this dystopian world) show up to interrogate Chris about impeding ones ability to sign the oath. Barinholtz tosses out his satire almost completely for a dinner party thriller of escalating violence and misunderstandings. John Cho appears as one of the CPU agents who Barinholtz treats with politically correct kid gloves both explicitly (Chris lecturing his father for not saying “Asian-American”, Amy Pascal would be so proud) and implicitly (making Cho’s agent the voice of reason against the psychotically monstrous other agent played by Billy Magnussen like he’s a terminator underneath that mustache).
Again here, if Barinholtz were going for a satire of blind patriotism he would have had the family members that signed the oath stick up for the CPU agents to an absurd degree. But at this point, Barinholtz has lost all sight of what this movie is supposed to be saying. The Oath in it’s third act switches gears entirely into a standard issues hostage situation movie that doesn’t resolve or illuminate anything that came before it. The first half of the film feels like a lecture, all be it kind of an interesting one. The 2nd half of it feels more like a movie, but one we’ve seen before. It doesn’t seem like Barinholtz doesn’t have the guts to go for the political throat, just lacking the filmmaking aptitude to wrap these two sides into a single smooth cohesive whole.