Ike Barinholtz - Momentum Pictures
Credit: Momentum Pictures
Before We Vanish by Steven Warner Featured Film

Maximum Truth — David Stassen

June 29, 2023

The current American political climate is in a state of such disarray that we have now reached a point where individuals are basing their ideologies and beliefs on a limited edition beer can, a detail that is objectively hilarious, until you think about it too much and realize how terrifying the implications are. The advent of social media has turned everyone into armchair analysts, fostering the widespread (mis)belief that their opinion matters, likes and retweets serving as the ultimate metric. In theory, a satire centering this surreality would seem like a no-brainer, with enough ammunition to provide material for dozens of screenplays. Yet therein lies the rub: how do you satirize a world that is already the ultimate satire? 

David Stassen and Ike Barinholtz have trod this terrain of America’s dire political present recently — 2018’s The Oath threw Orwell, The Purge, Thanksgiving, and a “fictional,” fascist autocrat into a blender, to mixed results — and new mockumentary Maximum Truth similarly has no interest in meaningfully plumbing the depths of 21st-century political discourse, its participants both in front of and behind the camera seemingly beaten into submission before the first day of shooting by the farce taking place around them. One could then ask then why even make the film, but then audiences would be deprived of seeing Barinholtz fall down a flight of stairs — a regular Lucille Ball, that guy. Barinholtz stars as Rick Kingston, a former lawyer who discovered that he could sue various companies for bullshit reasons and get lucrative settlements, and who now fancies himself a “consultant,” which means he’s willing to work for anyone inclined to give up the green, politics be damned. That this opportunist and fame whore is already seen by the public as a joke takes quite a bit of fun out of the proceedings from the jump, as scathing political comedy is rarely born out of self-awareness. 

As Maximum Truth opens, Rick is spearheading a protest against a new play opening in L.A. that supposes Abraham Lincoln had a male lover, a joke that wasn’t all that funny when Billy Eichner tried it in Bros nine months ago. But get this: Rick is a closeted gay man, claiming that his live-in lover, Marco (Tony Rodriguez), is his assistant. Can you believe the irony?! Maximum Truth is only getting started, though, so hold on to your monocles. A rich socialite named Nancy Jo Nackerson (Beth Grant) — her name is irrelevant, it’s merely fun to type — whose deplorable husband invented fracking, hires Rick to get the dirt on a beloved political candidate (Max Minghella) running for Congress who apparently hates the rich; oddly, specific political parties are never mentioned here, because specificity is obviously also where satire goes to die. Rick teams up with his buddy Simon (Dylan O’Brien), a gym-obsessed musclehead who is, wait for it… really stupid and toxic. Couldn’t you just die of surprise?! Simon sells protein supplements out of his garage (of course), and he can’t even spell the word “shredded” right (of course), because he’s a big dumb animal (of course). Naturally, Rick and Simon run into one dead end after another in their quest for debaucherous evidence, whether it be a supposed sex tape or allegations of sexual harassment and racism. 

And so goes Maximum Truth, a film that goes out of its way to paint its protagonist as an absolute dunderhead, leading to a conclusion where it’s revealed that he is… indeed, a dunderhead. There’s no build-up or comedic tension, even as a strict deadline is built into the plot itself, that of a scheduled press conference in only three short days. The film as a whole is utterly repetitious, each new scenario leading to the same pathetic punchline: the candidate is a saint, Rick and Simon are stupid. For his part, Barinholtz can play charismatically smarmy in his sleep, but unfortunately, there are times here when it feels like he’s doing just that. It’s O’Brien who fares best with the material, displaying a fair amount of comedic chops even as he’s forced to play a stereotype so clichéd that it would have felt tired in 1995. That the movie ends on a joke seemingly making fun of rideshare drivers seems especially cruel, as if Stassen and Barinholtz were unable to fathom anything quite so demeaning at that — hot take, the working class sure does suck. But even worse than that offense? Self-entitled comedians who believe they have something to say about the world we live in but are too afraid to get their hands dirty,  where a cheap line of dialogue like, “My message is that of whoever pays me the most,” is presented as incisive satire and not just another fart in the 78-minute crop dusting that is Maximum Truth.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 25.

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