Barinholtz spoke with EW about making the political personal in his new dark satire film
If we’re talking level of difficulty, The Oath is attempting to do something on the level of a highly trained Russian gymnast. It is the full-twisting Shaposhnikova of movies. And yet, Ike Barinholtz has done the impossible: he has made a comedy about our country’s toxic political divide.
In The Oath, Barinholtz stars as Chris, a liberal news-junkie married to the pragmatic Kai (Tiffany Haddish) whose Thanksgiving goes off the rails when his conservative-leaning family arrives in the wake of scandal about a national loyalty oath.
“[People ask] ‘Why did you make your character inusfferable?’ I think the version of this movie where Chris is noble and behaves well and is sexy and always makes the right decision, I think that would be like, partisan porn. And i think if you’re going to do satire, you need to shine the light on everything,” said Barinholtz.
Although the film’s razor-edge tone required the all-star cast to largely abstain from improvisation, according to Barinholtz, one memorable line was all Haddish. “I wish I was a good enough writer to come up with the term ‘trash p—-.’ I can’t. That only exists in Tiffany’s head.”
Another casting coup came in Barinholtz using his real-life brother, Superstore actor Jon Barinholtz, to play his brother in the movie. “There’s so much baggage between us in the last 35 years. There’s no one that you hate and love more than your sibling, there are just so many feelings there. We’re best friends, but I knew that having him on set, I could push him and get real reactions. It’s just muscle memory — if I’m in the scene yelling at him, it just takes him back to us fighting over Cocoa Krispies.”
It’s not a far leap to understand that the film is talking about our current political situation, but Trump is never mentioned, and Barinholtz never considered making him the president in the movie (the film’s fictional commander-in-chief has a generic, white-guy name). “I think the name Trump is so loaded. And if Trump was the president in the movie, it becomes all about Trump. And I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be about the American family. And I think some people are programmed now, even people who don’t like him, they hear the name and it’s a bit of a turn-off [for the movie]. I think people could make the connection.”
Achieving the difficult balance between poignancy and comedy (and later, violence and comedy, gore and comedy, etc.) was easier for Barinholtz thanks in part to help from a roster of comedian friends who watched early versions of the film, including Get Out director Jordan Peele. “Jordan had a great note, he was like, ‘I love the tone, I love what you’re doing, and you need to make sure you’re balancing it perfectly. Because there are some moments where you have something really scary or emotional and then you have a joke, and it’s great, but then you put another joke on it, and it tips the scale too much.’ When that happens, the audience’s brain gets reprogrammed in the comedy spectrum. And then when I’m asking them in 30 seconds to be scared or sad again, it takes them longer to switch back over. So it was this balancing act, not only in terms of politics and points of view, but really tone.” Among the other early viewers was Seth Rogen, who makes a tiny cameo (in name only) when the news reports that he’s been abducted by federal agents for failing to sign the president’s loyalty oath. (“But he’s safe at home now,” jokes Barinholtz.)
This film is Barinholtz’s feature directorial debut, and he began writing it after the 2016 election realizing that the Thanksgiving table in America was permanently altered. In spite of everything, he remains hopeful:
“We’ve witnessed a lot of the flaws in the foundation of the country, but I still think the foundation is strong and that it’s bigger than one person, one president. If we don’t have these conversations with friends and family — I’m not talking about random people on Twitter or coworkers you don’t really have to deal with — if they don’t hear your point of view, they’re not going to hear a good point of view. They’re just going to dig further in the Fox News world and the Ann Coulters of the world. I know a lot of people who are like, ‘I just don’t want to talk to my aunt anymore, I just don’t want to.’ And I get that. I’m not telling people what to do: if you have a cousin or a brother or an aunt who’s a virulent racist, you can walk away. But I challenge people to not cut these connections, not cut the ones you can work on. Because, it’s very hard, once you detach, it’s very hard to reattach.”
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The Oath (2018 movie)