Film Review: The Oath

'The Oath' is something to swear at, all right: the first terrible movie of the Trump Administration. There are sure to be more where this came from, but this one will be hard to bottom. A daring idea takes a nosedive.
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“Who you gonna call?” Somehow, incredibly and inexplicably, the question never comes up in The Oath, a Sign-of-Our-Times rant that could be a comedy but may be a drama. The level of internal anger in this flick obliterates all semblance of tone. Its wafting from giddy to gritty and back is unnerving, when not downright annoying.

By simply calling the cops or dialing 911, the whole situation wouldn’t have happened. Nor, then, would have the film. There’d be a massive saving on the fake blood, and the cast would be spared an enormous amount of anguished flailing-about.

Where The Best Years of Our Lives perfectly caught the zeitgeist of post-World War II America, The Oath catches only the frustration of those living the worst years of their lives and stays stuck at the intersection of Laughing It Off and Duking It Out.

Who you gonna blame? Could it be the hothead writer who concocted this brilliantly bizarre plot premise and didn’t know what to do with it? Or the hothead director who played it all at a boil-and-bubble fever pitch? Or the hothead producer who kept it in the air a full 93 minutes? Or the hothead star who hosts this holiday horrorshow?

That’s a very good place to start, and all of them are Ike Barinholtz, who normally operates out of a small-screen sandbox (“MADtv,” “The Mindy Project”) but has seen fit to take his big idea to the big screen, triple-bowing as a writer-director-producer.

Chris Powell, the short-circuiting news-junkie liberal he plays, is a product of a divisive society resulting from a self-centered president with an elephantine ego.

The titular oath that sets Chris off is but a short putt from reality. The White House urges all Americans to sign a statement of loyalty to the President, offering tax perks as an incentive. There is no punishment for not signing, but the threat hangs heavily in the air, and name-brand movers ’n’ shakers are disappearing. During the ten months citizens are given to stew over this, some of our brightest and best vanish from the American scene (Seth Rogen among them). Due date is Black Friday (i.e., the day after Thanksgiving) and, as it approaches, Homeland Security dispatches a special task force to collect and cajole signatures, door-to-door, from the populus.

When Chris’ clan descends on his sprawling suburban spread with their conflicting agendas—conservative parents (Chris Ellis and Nora Dunn), semi-liberal sister (Carrie Brownstein) and her flu-stricken spouse (Jay Duplass), preppie brother (Barinholtz’s real bro, Jon) and date (Meredith Hagner)—it turns into a politically polluted Thanksgiving, as far as one can get from Norman Rockwell’s idyllic vision.

Even before the boys from the Citizens Protection Unit or CPU (an amenable John Cho and an aggressive Billy Magnussen) come knocking to censure Chris, he’s in family-feud mode, ignoring the warnings of his wife (Tiffany Haddish) to keep everything politely apolitical, labeling his brother a Nazi and a moron for signing up.

The President’s men are kerosene for a fire already in progress. When they overstay their welcome and double-down on Chris, the situation shapes up like a home invasion, and the family retaliates with guns and shovels. Just when you think you’re well beyond a happy ending, one arrives—out of left field (literally): In traipses the bedridden brother-in-law with a news bulletin that stops further bloodshed and neutralizes everything. It is a copout no more convincing than all that’s gone before.

Other than lured by loot (she’s an executive producer), one wonders why Haddish lent her celebrity to this project, since the script pretty much lock-jaws her comedy. But she does bring something unexpected and needed to the chaos: a grounded humanity. At times, she’s the only person on the premises making any kind of sense.

Not much sense resides in Chris. No matter how you might agree with his political diatribes, you tire of them. Barinholtz has drawn him—and played him—with such loud-mouthed, warts-and-all obnoxiousness that he will alienate the truest of believers.

The secret ingredient of The Oath can be found in its endless end credits. Among the multitudes who are thanked is Jordan Peele, who got an Oscar for writing Get Out, two Oscar nominations for directing and producing it and was one of the producers of BlacKkKlansman. All three are societal protests, deftly rephrased as horror films.