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‘The Oath’ star Ike Barinholtz made a movie about his lousy Thanksgiving so you can avoid one

Comedian/actor Ike Barinholtz' Thanksgiving-from-Hell comedy The Oath comes from personal experience.

Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz in 'The Oath'
Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz in 'The Oath'Read moreRoadside Attractions

A few years ago, actor/comedian Ike Barinholtz (The Mindy Project, Blockers) wrapped up a Thanksgiving dinner with a bitter political argument that roped in his mom and brother.

It was foolish, hurtful, and absurd — they'd all voted for the same person. They just disagreed on events leading up to the election. In the aftermath, Barinholtz saw that his own partisan obsessions were largely to blame, and he took a step back to look at his behavior, which he didn't like.

"It was consuming me. I was reading every possible article, I was reading every hot take. I was letting that dictate everything — my mood, and a lot of stuff was falling by the wayside. I'm talking, like, my time with my kids," he said. "I felt overwhelmed by what was going on [on a national political level], and I think a lot of people had that feeling. But they weren't helping themselves if they were doing what I was doing, which was just feeding themselves more of the stuff that was making them angry in the first place. I recognized how flawed that was, and how misguided and counterproductive. If something is making you unhappy, the solution can't be more of it, right?"

Barinholtz was able to pull out of his steep dive in part by writing about it — a screenplay that became The Oath, just opened, a deeply black comedy about a Barinholtz-based character named Chris, a political junkie who hosts a family Thanksgiving and ruins it by violating a strict no-politics rule.

The movie eschews political side-taking in favor of a focus on how extreme political engagement can distort behavior and relationships. In Chris' case, he's chosen partisan tribe over family. This makes him a poor host — he knows his brother's girlfriend is conservative, for instance,  but he can't remember her name. And he's more engaged with social media than with people.

"He's getting this constant barrage of news that is emotional in nature but not really reading anything in depth. It's 160 characters at a time, and it's kind of warping his brain," said Barinholtz, who took cues from his own indulgence in Twitter and other platforms. He doubled down on all of it for a brief time when writing the script.

"When I was typing, I had Fox and MSNBC and CNN on all day, so it was very easy to get into that mind-set," he said.

His timely script got picked up by indie studio Roadside Attractions, and it attracted a roster of comedy pros, led by Tiffany Haddish — who has been a hot prospect since her breakout role in last year's Girls Trip — as Chris' wife, a bit of casting that gives the movie interesting layers. In one scene, Haddish's Kai hears a guest say Chris Rock is racist. She reacts with the practiced indifference of an African American woman who has had to live with such remarks her entire life, whereas combative Chris is almost too eager to take the bait.

"First and foremost, I just wanted Tiffany Haddish in my movie because she's Tiffany Haddish. Because she's awesome. And I was beyond thrilled when she agreed to do it. And as I talked to her, the script continued to evolve [Haddish gets an executive producer credit]. It made the movie better in so many ways. On one level, I wanted to position Chris and Kai as this idyllic American progressive couple, but having her there gave the situation so much more nuance," said Barinholtz.

Haddish's character has far more practice than Chris in dealing with insensitive remarks, and the contrast between her poise and his lack thereof is revealing, and central to the narrative. Chris loses control, sending the movie into increasingly dark (though darkly comic) territory. It reaches a moment of catharsis that helps Chris see just how much of a misanthrope he's become.

Barinholtz can relate.

"I realized, more than ever, that you can't let those things that give you true happiness get neglected. We're on this earth for about six seconds, and I know that I'd be ashamed of myself if looked back and saw that I didn't play with my daughter because I was responding to some reporter's tweet," he said.

He advises staying away from politics over the holidays, but he knows that's now harder than ever.

"I think in past years we could sidestep politics and pivot to other stuff. That's harder to do now because politics has permeated so many things. Let's just talk about football? That could become — Argh! — a national anthem argument. OK, then, what's your favorite TV show? Roseanne. Argh! So it's really hard now."

Whenever Barinholtz gets that old partisan feeling, he tries to think about channeling the energy in a positive direction.

"I think people have this feeling, like, if I'm listening to the 'right' podcast or news program, I'm helping and I'm part of the solution. And I'm not sure that's the case. I think if you want to effect change, you go volunteer for a candidate or get people to register to vote. It's probably also good to help out on a local level. Just be a better member of the community," he said.

So far, it's mostly working, though he still gets fired up occasionally.

"If you are the family that's able to get through the holiday and there's zero political argument, I think you have a level of discipline that I would love to get to."