The Oath posits an America in which the president of the United States demands that citizens sign a loyalty pledge to the country and the chief executive himself. At first, citizens are assured that there will be no penalty for failing to comply (but there will be a tax credit for those who sign). Then a political police force called the Citizens Protection Unit forms. Resisters start to disappear. Angry mobs of protesters are fired upon by paramilitary forces.
All of this is the basis for . . . a comedy.
Sort of. Produced, written, and directed by Ike Barinholtz, who also plays the lead character, the satire is one of the strangest and most incoherent vanity projects to emerge from Hollywood in years. President Trump, despite going unmentioned in the film, is the obvious target, but not the principal one. At its core, The Oath is a lampoon of fretful progressives who obsessively check the news during dinner, police small talk among friends for violations of PC orthodoxy, and overstate the dangers of fascism. Chris (Barinholtz), an ardent left-winger who is married to a mostly apolitical black woman (Tiffany Haddish), is preparing to host several conservative family members at their house for Thanksgiving, during which he has promised to unplug from politics and refrain from starting arguments. Fat chance: He’s the kind of zealot who keeps a George McGovern poster on a wall and a memoir by Geraldine Ferraro on his desk. Yes, this is the kind of movie that imagines that someone could be excited about Geraldine Ferraro in 2018. Yet things get stranger still.
At first Barinholtz relies on stale standup-comedy-style gags — old people are shown being bewildered by the TV remote — and trite culture-clash material. Liberals and conservatives around the dinner table find it wearying to make polite conversation with their opposite numbers when everything carries political connotations. Red-state types love the comic Bill Engvall; youngish, hip urbanites prefer Chris Rock. Too bad the Fox News fans at the table think Rock is racist. No, insists Barinholtz’s character, it’s actually racist to say Rock is racist. If anything, the movie is even more tiresome and frustrating than the most fraught Thanksgiving gathering, and I spent the early scenes longing to be somewhere, anywhere, else. Then the movie gets even worse.
Barinholtz thinks he is being expansive by jabbing at both Left and Right, but he’s off-base with both. He paints a picture of an America in which racists and xenophobes feel emboldened to start fights with minorities at every Applebee’s when, back in the real America, it’s progressives who are harassing people while they’re trying to eat. That an oath such as the one Barinholtz imagines would enjoy widespread backing from the public, as it does in the movie, is preposterous.
But Barinholtz fails equally by portraying Chris as a paranoid who needlessly ups the stakes on everything. Events depicted in the movie really do suggest the country is turning into 1970s Argentina, if not worse. It would be entirely proper to react as Chris does if a president demanded a loyalty oath, especially one backed by implied threats and a national police force going door-to-door investigating political opponents. A TV news alert tells us that (Barinholtz’s friend) Seth Rogen is among those who has disappeared. Hey, I didn’t like Sausage Party either, but if the secret police ever kidnap Seth Rogen you can sign me up for the resistance. (Michael Cera they can have.)
If the satire is supposed to target liberal hysteria, then the state’s actions should be much less frightening. If the target is Trumpism, then the liberal reaction shouldn’t be portrayed as hysteria. Meanwhile, Barinholtz’s character goes to such extremes that, far from giving the audience someone to identify with, he’s utterly despicable. Perhaps the most sympathetic character, played by John Cho, is a member of the new “CPU” force. This isn’t ambiguity. It isn’t balance. It’s a dog’s breakfast. Matching the satiric junkpile are the wild shifts in tone — horror-thriller moments juxtaposed with jokes about speed bumps.
The both-sides-ism winds up creating a comedy vacuum, a null set. And just to put an exclamation point on the script’s failures, the final scenes make for a bizarrely ineffective attempt at a tidy wrap-up of events that instead would upend Chris’s family for decades. If Barinholtz has achieved anything, it’s to unite his audience in loathing. No matter what your political persuasion, this movie is determined to irritate you.