Although impassioned, righteous, and coming from a strongly reasoned moral point of view, The Oath, the darkly comedic and politically explosive directorial debut of writer and star Ike Barinholtz, never rises above a level where one feels they’re doing more than sitting in a room watching a bunch of talented actors shouting at each other for ninety minutes. Cranked to eleven at all times, The Oath is meant to mimic the frustrating and often fruitless task of seriously talking about politics in partisan times, but it’s so basic and histrionic that it’s more off putting than interesting. No matter how many truth bombs Barinholtz has in his arsenal, there’s no subtlety and little actual wit to his approach.
Set in a somewhat alternate (or potentially future) universe not unlike the America of today, the U.S. president has asked his country’s citizens to sign a loyalty oath to the union and its leader; setting up “a white pages of people we can count on,” in the words of a press secretary. Two people who bristle at this idea are Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish), a married couple who refuse to raise their young daughter in a world where people are bullied into professing love for their country. The Oath then fast forwards ten months to the Thanksgiving holiday; the day before the deadline to sign said loyalty agreement. Chris, who staunchly refuses to sign, and Kai are preparing for the arrival of Chris’ clueless parents (Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis), his bro-hard brother (Jon Barinholtz) and his new, hyper-conservative, worker’s comp collecting, internet trolling girlfriend (Meredith Hagner), his lefty sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein), and Alice’s flu addled husband (Jay Duplass, who has maybe 90 seconds of screen time despite barely going anywhere). Chris’ parents demand that no one talk about politics, but the siblings keep clashing over their disagreements, causing Chris to blow a gasket and rip into everyone around him. The following day, a pair of government agents working for a newly established branch of Homeland Security (John Cho, Billy Magnussen) show up unannounced after someone secretly ratted him out as “impeding a citizen’s right to sign the oath.” Chris doubles down on his obstinacy in the face of such a fascist tactic, but naturally his rage only causes things to spiral further out of control.
The idea of mashing-up a dysfunctional family holiday comedy with something akin to The Purge (which Barinholtz knowingly name-checks here) is an inspired one, making The Oath a tantalizing comedic proposition with potentially endless possibilities. Unfortunately, most of the topics being brought up by Barinholtz are more frustrating and depressing in everyday life, not funny or thought provoking. Always afraid of diving into specific issues and preferring to straddle a wishy-washy middle ground, The Oath is confrontational and abrasive only as far as the overall volume level of Barinholtz’s perpetually shouty cast, anchored by the director-star’s increasingly grating and shallow “last sane man alive” mentality. No one in The Oath talks seriously about race, sexuality, guns, social reforms, or equality in any meaningful way. That could be part of the larger point, but it’s a missed opportunity for Barinholtz to make any sort of lasting impact.
While it’s admirable that Barinholtz portrays his increasingly unstable liberal do-gooder as a less than likable person, it leaves little room for anyone else to develop character. Haddish, who’s still decent here, is inexplicably given the straight-woman role, merely around to react to Chris’ meltdowns and calm him down whenever necessary. In a truly botched opportunity, not once does anyone mention Kai’s blackness, treating her race as if it doesn’t matter. The Oath is basically a bunch of uppity white folks tearing into each other with maximum verbal (and sometimes physical) force, while one of only three people of colour in the film remains largely silent. I understand that Barinholtz is living in a divided America at the moment, but it seems like he only hangs out with white people.
The first half of The Oath is a rather boring affair with hardly any laughs to be found (although it is slightly more stylish and well shot than one might expect from the single setting, low budget premise). Even those who find themselves in agreement with Barinholtz’s assertions that America is heading down a road of ruin will find the arguments and squabbles rather circular and unengaging. Barinholtz tries to spice things up at times with easy, lowbrow humour, like Chris constantly forgetting the name of his brother’s girlfriend or Duplass’ ailing brother in law talking about how often he poops himself, but these out of place asides only underline just how little his curiously overwritten script has to say. The dialogue coming out of the mouths of the characters are so specific that there’s zero room for subtext or telling inflection. It’s clear what Barinholtz wants to shout so passionately about, but none of it feels organically like a family coming apart at the seams, no matter how hard the talented supporting cast tries.
Things escalate a lot more assuredly in the second half of The Oath once Cho and Magnussen show up to deliver a nifty good cop/bad cop routine, but even then there isn’t much to say. By this point, Barinholtz has embraced similarities that his film has with The Purge, and most humour has been tossed to the side in favour of more serious escalation. It’s a better fit, but it’s also so on the nose that it features a character spitting blood onto a child’s handmade Happy Thanksgiving sign. Still, on the nose and overly serious is a better setting than watching a bunch of normally funny people struggling mightily to make their punchlines land.
Many people relive the types of arguments Barinholtz hashed out in The Oath on a daily basis, and instead of finding anything meaningful to say about them, he merely presents them as is. You could recreate the entirety of The Oath by sitting down in a room face to face with a friend and saying “fuck you” to each other repeatedly, growing louder and angrier as you go along. After about thirty minutes of that, start slapping each other with increasing strength. That’s how The Oath will make one feel. Will you get anything out of that? Probably not, but you’ll know you’ve been through something.
The Oath opens in select cities across Canada on Friday, October 19, 2018.
Check out the trailer for The Oath: