We’re all pretty mad these days, aren’t we? That is the grand thesis of Ike Barinholtz’s The Oath, a well intentioned but wildly misguided social satire that stems from somebody who’s greatest fear under the Trump administration is being the one with the burden of a correct opinion at an awkward Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a film of bullet points, attempting to pay lip service to all of the issues instead of picking one that could pull the audience in.
The titular Oath refers to a loyalty declaration that the totalitarian regime in charge of the United States is giving it’s citizens the “option” to sign. Barinholtz’s Mason is a bleeding hearted upper middle class liberal, hell-bent on shaming anybody who even considers signing. His wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) is more moderate, wanting to maintain peace in her home for Thanksgiving holiday, as a parade of Barinholtz’s relatives, some more prejudiced than others, invade the home.
The first half of the film centers around the mounting tension between the family members, a set up that any writer worth his salt can wring some juicy tension out of. Unfortunately, Barinholtz deals entirely in broad stereotypes and all of his characters on both sides of the isle suffer because of it. We’re treated to scene after scene of the same tired political discussions that we’ve seen play out in some form or another on the news, late night talk shows, comedy sketches and internet forums. To make matters worse, since Haddish’s character is in peacekeeping mode and none of her family members show up, all of these conversations are rooted in the white perspective. Besides, what does it matter what her opinions are? She’s just the only one in genuine danger under this administration.
It doesn’t help that Barinholtz isn’t particularly engaging in the lead role, spending most of his screen time in broad comedy mode, shouting at people and flailing his arms around. We hardly ever see any shades of a human being in there, just a walking dispensary of talking points. He has hardly any chemistry with Haddish, who is the only one who finds any form of nuance here, breaking out of her Girl’s Trip box and delivering a performance that both plays on her natural charisma while reigning herself in enough to make her emotional moments feel genuine. The rest of the family are given such thin characters that none of the actors can pull anything out, despite their best efforts.
The second half swerves into a completely different direction as Billy Magnussen and John Cho arrive as government agents who were informed of Barinholtz’s rebellious attitudes. After Magnussen becomes violent, we’re thrown into a home invasion thriller that consists of three elements: the group yelling and swearing at each other, people taking each other into the next room to discuss their next move, and repetitive sparks of violence.
Barinholtz’s weaknesses as a director come out to play in this segment. He lacks the fuel as a storyteller to raise the stakes throughout this sequence. The conditions remain exactly the same for our characters the entire time, putting the same series of conversations on loop for the better part of an hour. He’s not interested in playing with the large home he’s set his film in to ratchet up tension. Instead, he simply points and shoots as we hang out in one room watching these terrible people repeat themselves.
It’s a shame, as Cho and Magnussen are both terrific. Cho, coming off of the performance of his career in Searching, plays the more nuanced part. A kind family man that just wants to deescalate the situation as quickly as possible. He’s genuinely sweet, and we feel terrible for all of the horrible things that happen to him. Meanwhile, Magnussen is a surprisingly chilling embodiment of the vile alt-right self appointed vigilante. He disappears completely into the role, making us forget about the dopes he played in Ingrid Goes West and Game Night. It would be great to see him play this kind of a role in a better movie, as he clearly has potential to do more than what we’ve seen him do so far.
A god awful ending is the icing on the cake. Since Barinholtz has no clever ideas to give his characters, he gives them an easy out in one of the most unsatisfying plot twists I’ve seen in some time. It betrays any of the moral ambiguity one might be able to place on this story, reducing it to a black and white solution that brings the story to a crashing finish.
While The Oath does have occasional moments of intensity and wit, they are almost always undercut by Barinholtz’s chronically weak storytelling. He’s not interested in toying with the microaggressions that films like Get Out masterfully satirize, because he hasn’t experienced them. Instead, he wastes a group of talented actors as he tries to figure out what he’s going to yell at his own family members this Thanksgiving.