(Image by Topic Studios and courtesy of Roadside Attractions)
THE OATH— 4 STARS
As timely and painful as a Brazilian wax before beach season, The Oath is a salaciously scathing and hilarious black comedy for the #NotMyPresident era of thumb-biting insults we Americans sling to choose sides around here. Spinning out of a ridiculous-yet-just-plausible-enough premise, writer, director and star Ike Barinholtz and his fellow comedians light a ticking clock fuse towards a powder keg of social commentary dipped in the incendiary gasoline of partisan politics. The result is an entertaining explosion where every tame “bless your heart” or “agree to disagree” pleasantry shared through gritted teeth becomes replaced with “shut the f — k up” shouts and punches to the face. No matter how wrong all of this is, The Oath is a finger-pointing wake-up we could all use.
The fun part is that all of this wicked wit happens at what is supposed to be one of the most gracious and unifying of domestic settings: the Thanksgiving dinner table. The dining sanctity of late November should be the watering hole of the quintessential American family, the place where divisions are set aside, hatchets are buried, and cares are cast aside for family values and positive reflection. Well, thanks to a hotly-debated impending deadline for citizen action in The Oath, that loving fellowship smashes to the floor like spilling an entire dish of cranberry sauce.
The off-screen President of the United States of America and his administration have put into place a loyalty pledge, one that sounds mirrors the militaristic “The Patriot’s Oath.” Promising tax credits and other perks to those who sign, Americans have until Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, to sign the terms. Enforcement of this “fair” policy comes from the newly deputized Citizens Protection Unit (CPU). Overly immersed and nervously lathered by the liberal media spin pushing against this initiative is Chris (Barinholtz), a married father of one daughter (Priah Ferguson) with his good-tempered wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish).
Chris is the kind of leftist with a George McGovern campaign poster hanging in his office as he admonishes co-workers and family members who sign the pledge. He’s quickly becoming the lone holdout while his extended family descends for the big holiday. The gathering includes Chris’s mom (Tag’s Nora Dunn) and father (veteran character actor Chris Ellis), his brother Pat (the director’s own brother Jon Barinholtz) and his spiteful girlfriend Abbie (TV actress Meredith Hagner), his sister Alice (Portlandia player Carrie Brownstein) and her ill husband (Jay Duplass) sleeping it all off. Precisely as hinted it, everything seems contemptuous yet fine until the topic of the urgent politics boils over.
LESSON #1: DON’T TALK POLITICS WITH YOUR FAMILY — Family members regurgitate their unsubstantiated rhetoric and refuse to allow leeway for civil conversation. Chris’s Thanksgiving table may sound a great deal like your own with social and generational differences between hardline hate and lazy ambivalence. Let the blow-up of this movie remind you not ruin holidays over political garbage. Find other distractions. Be cool. Play with the kids. Try not to swear around children. Choose a few silly board games. Watch football. Pick a different topic or two, period.
LESSON #2: YELLING REQUESTS FOR SILENCE NEVER WORKS — As a funny coincidence, this becomes a repeated lesson from September’s The Predator in saying how most any shouted exclamation to want quiet and attention only irks the recipients to want to one-up the shouter with a louder reply and more ruckus. “Calm down!” turns into “Don’t tell me to calm down!” You get to the point where you should stop trying.
Once the epithets are assigned and labels are slapped around in The Oath, of all people, the madcap Tiffany Haddish’s matriarch steps forward as the whistle-blowing voice of reason. Soon after her blow-up seems to simmer down the turmoil, two khaki-clad Gestapo-ish CPU agents (Searching’s John Cho and Billy Magnusson of Game Night) arrive in Chris’s living room looking to ask the frazzled blowhard a few questions. More and more eccentric excrement hits the divisive fan blades of political stammering over practical problem-solving.
LESSON #3: LET PEOPLE BE WRONG — Misleading and exaggerated facts can come from both conservative and liberal sources. The trust folks put in those outlets will perpetuate what is incorrect. They need to find out they are wrong on their own, especially if they won’t listen to friends. Comeuppance to those people will undoubtedly come later when the topic itself in question rears its ugly head in day-to-day life.
Ike Barinholtz and his collected stack of hot takes and fun ideas on cocktail napkins (his second screenplay after Central Intelligence) have been patched into quite the punchy and peppy comedy. In smaller snippets or less-developed doses, some of these gags should not work, but two factors elevate The Oath, Ike’s directorial debut. The first is the solid casting. Barinholtz has assembled a stellar troupe of confident performers that do not try to chew scenery the way bigger stars would. Instead, they play off each other with timing and panache. Dunn and Magnusson stand out in particular. The second factor is how the movie’s shogun for sarcasm sprays the target to show no quarter to either political side. The shock value is high and no demographic is safe from skewering criticism, making The Oath an equal opportunity assailant. Today’s divided political landscape, from right to left, needs to get roughed up.
LESSON #4: UNPLUG AND TURN OFF THE NEWS — The parting advice spinning away from The Oath is to turn off the noise more often. Narrow your sources to reliable ones. Reduce or turn off the breaking news alerts. A bunch of it cyclical garbage that has little effect on your day-to-day life. It will be there when you get back. Loss the obsession and put your devices down. Take care of what means the closest and most to you, not the external things you can’t control.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#735)