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'The Oath' Does Its Best to Wring Laughs From a Political Nightmare


Published November 4, 2020 at 10:15 a.m.

Our streaming entertainment options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. This week, I was as obsessed with the election as everybody else, so I decided to torture myself with a movie I've long been curious about, a black comedy that floats an unsettling political scenario. Written and directed by Ike Barinholtz of "MADtv," The Oath flopped at the box office in 2018 and can now be found on Hulu and Crackle.

The deal

In an America not so unlike ours, the president has asked all citizens to sign an oath of allegiance. Not required them, mind! As a chirpy official explains on TV, it's totally optional. But should you want to put your loyalty to the current administration in writing, you have until the next Black Friday.

That makes Thanksgiving extra dicey for liberal suburban couple Chris (Barinholtz) and Kai (Tiffany Haddish). While Chris is eager to fulminate against the rising tide of fascism, his mom (Nora Dunn) makes him promise not to talk politics, particularly with his more conservative brother, Pat (Jon Barinholtz). That's not easy when the oath is constantly in the news, inspiring protests and uprisings that provoke a violent government response.

Soon Chris is scrapping with Pat and his new firebrand girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) over the turkey. When a pair of government agents arrives to investigate Chris' alleged efforts to discourage others from signing the oath, things escalate with terrifying speed.

Will you like it?

The Oath is a noble effort to make an intelligent comedy about political polarization that results in a deeply unpleasant watching experience. Writer-director Barinholtz does a good job of spinning a disturbingly plausible premise into a nightmare, but he somehow manages to map our national divisions without shedding useful light on them.

The core problem is that the movie reads so much like a traditional comedy, and traditional comedy tends naturally toward moderation and a "both sides" view of the issue. Materially privileged, Chris is recognizable from countless middlebrow comedies as the clueless dad who needs to wake up to the needs of others — in this case, to the fact that his family members are more concerned about their safety than their principles.

But here's the thing: Both sides aren't equivalent in this movie. In scene after scene, Barinholtz demonstrates that the oath is no mere technicality; it's transforming the U.S. into a police state where protesters are gunned down and people feel empowered to commit wanton attacks on their fellow citizens. As a result, when Chris' loved ones implore him to turn off the news and enjoy the mashed potatoes, they're the ones who seem absurdly out of touch.

A brilliant writer might have turned this disproportion into a brilliant twist — we start out laughing at Chris' overreaction to the oath and end up staring in horror as we witness the price of not reacting at all.

But, instead of drilling deeper into the rich material of family conflict, Barinholtz embroils Chris in a half-horrifying, half-slapstick standoff with the government agents that has no possible happy exit without a deus ex machina. While the film's first half is decent cringe comedy, the second is tedious, chaotic and downright painful — wasting the talents of Haddish and Carrie Brownstein, who plays Chris' ambivalent sister.

The Oath deserves credit for going where few movies dare to go, risking alienating much of its audience in the process. But the sitcom tone mixes disastrously with the high-stakes premise, ensuring that the movie is more valuable as a time capsule of liberals' fear and frustration over the past four years than as anything you'd want to watch.

If you like this, try...

Election (1999; Amazon Prime Video, HBO Max, Criterion Channel, Crackle, rentable): Alexander Payne's dark comedy takes a premise not unlike that of The Oath — a decent but comically flawed man stands up against what he believes is a dangerous new order — and lowers the stakes to a high school election. It's wickedly funny.

Brazil (1985; Hoopla, rentable): Terry Gilliam managed to find absurdist comedy in the workings of a fascist regime in this dystopian classic.

The Purge: Election Year (2016; rentable): Would you like your paranoid political nightmares to come with a violent B-movie catharsis? The four-film Purge series asks us to imagine that the U.S. government has declared all crimes legal for an annual 12-hour period in an effort to make the rest of the year "safe" by thinning the ranks of the urban poor. In this installment, a presidential candidate with an anti-Purge platform becomes a target herself.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Oath 2"