‘The Oath’ takes a look at the ugly side of the culture war, but fails to offer many solutions — or laughs

The cast of The Oath talkin’ turkey.
The cast of The Oath talkin’ turkey. Courtesy photo

The Oath

Rated R
Runtime: 93 minutes

There's no shortage of hot takes on the deeply fractured political climate in media right now, from American Horror Story: Cult to every episode of the newly relevant again Saturday Night Live. The deep philosophical divisions between the left and right wings of American ideology have turned discourse into little more than a shouting match to prove which side has the cleverest insults. Most of us see it play itself out on social media every day. But if you're for some reason wondering if a heated Facebook comment battle would make a good movie, writer-director Ike Barinholtz' new comedy, The Oath, is here to assure you that it wouldn't.

Barinholtz also stars as liberal everyman Chris in a world where an unnamed president of the United States has asked all citizens to sign a "loyalty pledge" affirming their dedication to "the president and country" and vowing to "defend them against enemies both foreign and domestic." It's a truncated version of the oath federal officials take before taking office, but it replaces "the Constitution" with "the president," a premise that would have been outlandish just a few years ago.

Chris, of course, thinks that the oath is the antithesis of what the country is supposed to stand for, and he's right. But he's a complete dick about it. Since the deadline to sign the oath is the day after Thanksgiving, Chris turns a family holiday into a parade of self-righteousness. He lambastes his dimwit brother, Pat (played by real-life brother Ike Barinholtz) and his brother's girlfriend, Abbie (Meredith Hagner), a Tomi Lahren-esque online troll, for their disinterest in facts. Cool, pot-smoking sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia) isn't spared public denouncement after she tells Chris that she and her husband, played by a barely seen Jay Duplass (Transparent), signed the oath for the sake of their kids.

Tiffany Haddish, who plays Chris' wife, Kai, has proved that she's a gifted comic actor with last year's breakout turn in Girls Trip, but here she gets precious little to do except constantly pull Chris into another room and remind him — and the audience, presumably, as if they needed any reminding — that Chris is being an asshole. And that's why when two government stooges, played by Jon Cho (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, Star Trek Beyond) and a menacing Billy Magnussen (seen recently in Maniac, which ranks far superior on the zeitgeist meter), show up the morning after Thanksgiving to talk about a report that Chris has attempted to impede other people from signing the oath, it's almost a relief.

The confrontation with the agents goes horribly awry due to some comic misunderstanding and escalation, and the meat of the story lies in Chris compromising his supposed morality in the face of extreme circumstances. Laws are broken, guns go off, and every conversation results in angry exchanges of "Fuck you!" (We weren't kidding about the movie's similarity to a Facebook comment thread.)

But the resolution of the conflict relies too much on a deus ex machina delivered by a breaking news special report on television — one that a lot of people are holding out hope for in real life, though it took seeing it on screen in The Oath to realize how unlikely it is. In the meantime, the point of the film seems to be that there are terrible people on both sides of the argument, a milquetoast sentiment that plays directly into the hands of the subtle creep of fascism in real life. The film works so hard at painting the voice of dissent as distasteful that it's bound to turn off the very people it's trying to speak to. Far better to be impolite than to pave the way for oppression for the sake of courtesy.

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