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‘The Oath’ and the politicized Thanksgiving from hell: Don’t try this at home

Comedian Ike Barinholtz makes a black comedy about politics ruining Thanksgiving in 'The Oath.'

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

There are a number of movies about addiction scheduled to be released this fall, and although The Oath isn't mentioned as being among them, maybe it should be.

It's a dark comedy about a Thanksgiving gathering that erupts into an uncivil war of political rancor, set off by the cohost Chris (Ike Barinholtz) of the dinner, a fellow addicted to political engagement/argument. His relatives know that Chris is a hyper-partisan, liberal news junkie, so he's the main target of a preholiday email sent to all by his mother (Nora Dunn), stipulating that no politics shall be discussed during the dinner.

For people like Chris, though, Thanksgiving is no time to go cold turkey. He can barely handle his conservative brother Pat (real life bro Jon Barinholtz) and is completely undone by Pat's girlfriend (Meredith Hagner, very good) who is his hyper-partisan equivalent across the aisle – preoccupied with her buzzing phone, checking her pokes and tweets, laughing at a private, ring-fenced political joke.

Chris, in her presence, lasts about two minutes. When he violates the nonaggression pact, mom puts him in time out, leading to a telling scene of Chris riding angrily around in his Prius, listening to a bubble-wrapped podcast, venting and ranting alone in the vehicle – in other words, getting a fix that you suspect will only leaving him craving more.

Ike Barinholtz also wrote and directed, and his insight here is that Chris' obsessions are symptomatic of a deeper problem, tied to a compulsive need to frame everything politically that manifests as a lack of self-control. The point isn't that Chris is a political animal – the point is that he has rabies.

We note that he often volunteers to be offended on behalf of others who should be, but who are not. For instance: Chris' wife is played by Tiffany Haddish, who sees and hears the same racially provocative comments as her husband, but reacts with practiced indifference (which Barinholtz highlights with some clever framing). Her years of practice with macro- and  micro-aggressions have given her armor, while Chris has moved in the other direction – eager, almost enthusiastic about finding an opportunity to fly into a righteous rage.

Thus he uses a lot of obscenities, but the title actually refers to a national loyalty oath that a flag-waving president has "requested" all citizens sign — an outsized MacGuffin the movie uses, but doesn't really need. The slightly heightened reality of political bickering initially on display turns into an untenable mix of suspense, horror, and black comedy as government agents  (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) show  up to investigate Chris' refusal to sign.

Badinage gives way to bandages. I liked this a lot less than the movie's promising first half, but I also liked the willingness of The Oath to stick its nose into the ongoing civility/rage debate, and it could serve as a timely reminder of what not to do next month.


The Oath

  1. Directed by Ike Barinholtz. With Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Meredith Hagner, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Billy Magnussen, and Jon Barinholtz. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.

  2. Running time: 93 minutes

  3. Parents guide: R (language, violence)

  4. Playing at: Area theaters