The premise behind Ike Barinholtz’s dark comedy The Oath is ripe with possibilities: A liberal man and his wife host his conservative relatives for Thanksgiving week, which coincides with a particularly divisive political issue tearing the country apart. There’s comedic tension in everyone trying to stay civil, followed by comedic release when civility fails. In the second half, writer-director-star Barinholtz (formerly of MADtv and The Mindy Project) lets the story expand into something bigger and more sinister that isn’t nearly as satisfying (or relatable) as the initial setting, but the film still works as a caustic social satire.
Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish play Chris and Kai, card-carrying liberals who oppose the (unnamed) current president and are especially repulsed by his latest thing, the “Patriot’s Oath,” which Americans can sign to show their loyalty to the country and the commander-in-chief. There’s no punishment for not signing it, of course — this is America! — but you get a tax credit if you do, and the list of who did and who didn’t will be publicly available. The deadline is the day after Thanksgiving, and protests, rallies, and riots are happening all over the country.
Chris was dreading his family’s visit anyway. His brother, Pat (played by real brother Jon Barinholtz), is a compassionless, anti-intellectual conservative windbag, accompanied by a new girlfriend, Abbie (Meredith Hagner), who looks like one of the Fox News blondes and parrots their talking points. Chris and Pat’s parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) just want everyone to avoid confrontation and get along. Their sister, Alice (Carrie Brownstein), is reliably liberal, though Chris finds she’s not as strident as he is.
The dynamic is familiar and funny. Chris is infuriated by everything Pat and Abbie say; Kai tries to keep Chris from blowing his top. Pat and Abbie are awful, but Chris, amusingly, is the one who’s touchy and argumentative, unable to resist the urge to turn on the news or check his phone to see what the latest outrage is. Some liberals may see more of themselves in Chris than they’re comfortable with (and then be annoyed that no conservatives are even going to see the movie, let alone recognize themselves in Pat and Abbie).
Anyway, the family’s together, tempers are flaring, things are coming to a head … and that’s where Barinholtz seems to have run out of ideas. The story takes a violent turn when two government agents, the somewhat reasonable Peter (John Cho) and the hotheaded mega-patriot Mason (Billy Magnussen), come to the house to follow up on an anonymous tip, and we see where this “Patriot’s Oath” plan was heading. Now it’s a different film, one that’s not as funny as the first one — notwithstanding Cho and Magnussen’s fervent performances — and I can’t help but mourn the wonderful/terrible things that might have happened if we’d kept it in the family.