Film can be a great medium to deliver political satire—Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove comes immediately to mind, as do Hal Ashby’s Being There and Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop. Ike Barinholtz’s The Oath aspires to join that august company, but instead comes off more like something a high school kid addicted to Saturday Night Live might produce if someone gave him a camera for Christmas. That gender designation is not an accident, because this is very much a very boy movie, from the fact the dominance of the male characters to the fetishizing of bad language, raised voices, and physical violence as a sign of realness.
The setup in The Oath is that Americans have been asked, by the day after Thanksgiving, to sign “The Patriot’s Oath,” which includes the language (shown on a title card) “…I pledge my loyalty to my President and my country and vow to defend them from enemies, both foreign and domestic.” In case those words sound familiar, they’re similar to language included in the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance (the one you take to become a naturalized citizen). The Naturalization Oath requires that you swear to, among other things, “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” One key difference: The President is mentioned nowhere in the Naturalization Oath, a rather on-the-nose change by Barinholtz that suggests he has a specific object of satire in mind.
Theoretically, there’s no penalty for not signing the Patriot’s Oath, but if you sign it you get a tax credit (which basically comes to the same thing if you pay taxes, a designation that certainly applies to the obviously well-off main characters in this film). And why is the signing deadline the day after Thanksgiving, when most people are on holiday? Because extended families often gather for Thanksgiving dinner, which provides the film with the perfect setup to bring the bickering members of one family together to have a big shouting match across a table laid with turkey and all the trimmings.
There’s potential in the idea behind The Oath, but precious little of it is realized. The script is remarkably lazy, relying far too much on stereotypes and high-decibel delivery rather than giving the characters anything interesting to say. The script also has no idea where to take the story, and as the action becomes increasingly far-fetched, this film has even less to say about anything. For a film with a lot of yelling and some seriously bloody violence, The Oath is also remarkably boring, and completely lacks the wild inventiveness and trenchant wit that characterize the best satires. Worse, it’s unpleasant to no purpose, and there’s enough unpleasantness (and enough stupid, self-righteous pricks, which is a good description of Barinholtz’s character) in most of our lives without spending time and money to experience more of the same. The Oath even looks remarkably cheap, which is hard to excuse in the age of digital filmmaking, when visually stunning films have been shot and produced on a very low budget.
Barinholtz does the film no favors by casting himself as the central character, while relegating more interesting actors like John Cho and Tiffany Haddish to secondary roles. In fact, Barinholz’s decision to write, direct, produce, and star in a film with a lot of moving parts feels more like an ego trip than anything else, and makes this film feel like a vanity project that’s really of no interest to anyone outside his immediate family and friends. | Sarah Boslaugh