Now here’s a great idea for a movie: What would happen if, in a test of patriotism, American citizens were asked to pledge their allegiance to a despotic U.S. president? Can’t you just imagine the comic possibilities: the breakdown in civility and social norms that might result, driving a wedge between family members of different political persuasions — over Thanksgiving dinner, no less?
Too soon? Too real?
With the bruising battle over Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation still a fresh memory for many, those last two questions are likely to linger in the mind as lefty moviegoers settle in to enjoy “The Oath,” a blistering political satire that may rip the bandage and the scab, as well as a lot of the skin, off a political wound that has barely had time to heal. Yes, lefties are this film’s target audience; if you’re not a compulsive consumer of “Saturday Night Live’s” cold open or Stephen Colbert’s monologue, this movie is not for you. Come to think of it, it may not even be for you. The laughter it evokes — and it is, at times, pretty funny — is the kind that hurts.
Written and directed by Ike Barinholtz, an actor and writer known for “The Mindy Project,” “The Oath” imagines a plausibly dystopian near future, one in which civilians have been enjoined to publicly declare their loyalty to a thin-skinned, conservative commander in chief. (Officially, there’s no penalty for not signing the titular oath, but there are financial incentives for doing so, not to mention the peer pressure and shaming directed toward those who don’t.)
As Thanksgiving arrives for Barinholtz’s Chris, a confirmed member of the #resistance and a compulsive news junkie who has so far scorned the new presidential edict, he and his wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish), prepare to welcome Chris’s family members into their home. This includes Chris’s like-minded sister (Carrie Brownstein); their cantankerous father and his peacekeeping wife (Chris Ellis and Nora Dunn); and Chris’s younger bother and his girlfriend (played by Barinholtz’s real-life sibling Jon Barinholtz and a Tomi Lahren-esque Meredith Hagner).
So far, so good.
In its broad contours, “The Oath” hews to many a Thanksgiving-themed comedy before it, superficially aping the well-worn genre in which long-simmering disputes between relatives boil over at the annual holiday gathering. Here however, the yuks and high jinks quickly get uglier than usual, despite Kai’s efforts to keep things cordial. It’s a brilliant decision by Barinholtz to cast Haddish, against type, in the role of the family diplomat. The actress is better known for playing characters who do not suppress their opinions, to put it mildly.
When Chris, who can’t help checking Twitter at the dinner table, announces, in outrage, the news that a liberal congressman has just been arrested and that Seth Rogen has been detained at the border (one of the film’s better jokes), arguments become volcanic, leading someone in the room to make a call, summoning agents from the Citizen’s Protective Unit — a Homeland Security-style police force — to the house.
This is where things get really interesting, and, for better or worse, more problematic.
The CPU agents include a violent, far-right hothead (Billy Magnussen) and his more sensible partner (John Cho). Their unwelcome presence — along with the likelihood that it was one of Chris’s guests who ratted him out to the latter-day Gestapo — inflames Chris, who is soon engaged in a confrontation with the lawmen that turns regrettably vituperative, and surprisingly violent.
It feels all too possible. And the echoes of such real-world events as the anger that exploded in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, lend the film’s final act a disturbing verisimilitude that casts a noticeable pall over the proceedings (mostly silly, but with a substantive subtext). To be sure, the comedy of “The Oath” is heightened, with slapstick histrionics reminding us that the shouting — and spurting blood — isn’t real. Barinholtz’s screenplay is clever and sharp, and he certainly knows his way around a camera. But the overheated tone of “The Oath” is occasionally hot enough to leave third-degree burns, rather than merely singe.
Going to the movies is often viewed as a form of escapism. As over the top as it may be, the at times all-too-true-to-life “The Oath” is one case where escaping from the frying pan feels like diving headfirst into the fire.
R. At area theaters. Contains crude language throughout, violence and some drug use. 93 minutes.