For many years, Ike Barinholtz has lived in California — but when the Chicago-born and raised actor-writer-director stopped by the Sun-Times newsroom, he was bursting with exuberance for his hometown.
Pausing in front of a framed Sun-Times photo of Chicago police officers eating ribs back in the day, Barinholtz told a story about a relative who was partners with the great cop-turned-actor Dennis Farina.
When I introduced Barinholtz to my friend and Sun-Times colleague Jenniffer Weigel, he exclaimed, “I still have a ‘Weigel’s Weiners’ T-shirt from 1988!” — a reference to Jenniffer’s late father, the beloved Chicago sportscaster Tim Weigel.
Discussing his reverence for the legendary duo of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, he shared a childhood memory of seeing Siskel in person, running up to him and saying, “Is ‘Willow’ any good?”
And once — well, maybe twice — Barinholtz checked his phone for updates on his Cubs (you might have seen him in those ads where he talks about being a diehard Cubbie fan), who at the time were locked in a battle with the Milwaukee Brewers in a Game 163 for the NL Central Division title. (Spoiler alert: It was not a good week for the Cubbies.)
Barinholtz, best known for his work on TV series such as “The Mindy Project” and films such as “Sisters,” “Neighbors” and “Blockers,” was in town to talk about “The Oath,” a pitch-black dark comedy he wrote, directed and stars in. It arrives in Chicago theaters Oct. 19.
I invited Barinholtz to the Sun-Times newsroom because his character in the movie, Chris, is a liberal news junkie who is constantly checking his phone and monitoring the cable channels for the latest developments.
Most of the movie takes place over a Thanksgiving holiday, as Chris and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) host a family gathering that includes Chris’ politically conservative brother Pat (played by Ike’s real-life brother Jon) and Pat’s girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner), who gets HER news from dubious far-right websites and social media posts.
“The Oath” takes place in a fictional, satirical version of the United States not all that far removed from reality.
“If you can, imagine a politically divided America — I know, that’s REALLY a stretch — and in this America, the president, who is very divisive, has put forward a Patriot’s Oath for the citizens to sign,” says Barinholtz. “It’s not compulsory, but it’s highly suggested everyone should sign it. And it’s also a way for them to find out who’s on their side and who isn’t.”
Confrontations between anti-oath protesters and the government-sanctioned “Citizens Protection Unit” are growing increasingly violent. More and more Americans are signing the oath out of fear of repercussions for their families.
“The deadline for signing the oath is the Friday after Thanksgiving, Black Friday,” says Barinholtz. “The movie focuses on my character having his family over for Thanksgiving, and they’re all over the political spectrum. …
“The first half of the movie is all about that family dynamic, and then in the second half of the movie things really take a turn and it becomes this bloody mess.”
Barinholtz says a real-life family dinner after the 2016 election served as inspiration for the film.
“We got into this big argument, blaming each other, ‘You did this,’ and ‘What about that!’ The next morning, I woke up, and I said to my wife, ‘We all voted for the same person, and WE’RE fighting. What’s going on at other family tables?’
“I started talking to friends of mine who had all these stories about going home for the holidays and getting into these crazy family discussions, and it felt like the arena of the holiday family dinner had changed forever. You used to be able to sidestep politics and talk about football, but now politics permeates everything.”
In “The Oath,” Chris has promised his wife he’ll lay off the political discussions and refrain from checking his phone and the cable channels for updates. He’s able to honor that pledge for about five minutes before he can’t help himself, and he launches into one self-righteous tirade after another. In fact, the supposedly tolerant and open-minded Chris consistently shouts down and shuts down anyone who dares disagree with him.
“There’s a version of this movie where my character, who is so liberal, is not only right, but he behaves well, and he’s kind, and he’s got a six-ack — but I don’t want to see that movie because that’s not the world we’re living in,” says Barinholtz.
“Part of the goal of this film is to show how normally rational people are deluding themselves a bit, and their brains are breaking a bit because they don’t know how to handle this new American political landscape. So while my character absolutely does have legitimate political points, he’s blowing it out the window because he’s screaming at his mom.
“The one word I would use to describe the way things are right now is ‘absurd.’ And to shine a light on that, you have to show the warts on all sides of the argument.”