‘The Oath’: Satire hits a lit­tle too close to home

Pawtucket Times - - FILM - By MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN

Now here’s a great idea for a movie: What would hap­pen if, in a test of pa­tri­o­tism, Amer­i­can cit­i­zens were asked to pledge their al­le­giance to a despotic U.S. pres­i­dent? Can’t you just imag­ine the comic pos­si­bil­i­ties: the break­down in ci­vil­ity and so­cial norms that might re­sult, driv­ing a wedge be­tween fam­ily mem­bers of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal per­sua­sions – over Thanks­giv­ing din­ner, no less? Huh-lar­i­ous.

Too soon? Too real?

With the bruis­ing bat­tle over Brett Ka­vanaugh’s Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion still a fresh mem­ory for many, those last two ques­tions are likely to linger in the mind as lefty movie­go­ers set­tle in to en­joy “The Oath,” a blis­ter­ing po­lit­i­cal satire that may rip the ban­dage and the scab, as well as a lot of the skin, off a po­lit­i­cal wound that has barely had time to heal. Yes, left­ies are this film’s target au­di­ence; if you’re not a com­pul­sive con­sumer of “Satur­day Night Live’s” cold open or Stephen Col­bert’s mono­logue, this movie is not for you. Come to think of it, it may not even be for you. The laugh­ter it evokes –and it is, at times, pretty funny – is the kind that hurts.

Writ­ten and di­rected by Ike Bar­in­holtz, an ac­tor and writer known for “The Mindy Project,” “The Oath” imag­ines a plau­si­bly dystopian near fu­ture, one in which civil­ians have been en­joined to pub­licly de­clare their loy­alty to a thin-skinned, con­ser­va­tive com­man­der in chief. (Of­fi­cially, there’s no penalty for not sign­ing the tit­u­lar oath, but there are fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives for do­ing so, not to men­tion the peer pres­sure and sham­ing di­rected to­ward those who don’t.)

As Thanks­giv­ing ar­rives for Bar­in­holtz’s Chris, a con­firmed mem­ber of the #re­sis­tance and a com­pul­sive news junkie who has so far scorned the new pres­i­den­tial edict, he and his wife, Kai (Tif­fany Had­dish), pre­pare to wel­come Chris’ fam­ily mem­bers into their home. This in­cludes Chris’ like-minded sis­ter (Car­rie Brown­stein); their can­tan­ker­ous father and his peace­keep­ing wife (Chris El­lis and Nora Dunn); and Chris’ younger brother and his girl­friend (played by Bar­in­holtz’s real-life sib­ling Jon Bar­in­holtz and a Tomi Lahren-es­que Mered­ith Hag­ner).

So far, so good.

In its broad con­tours, “The Oath” hews to many a Thanks­giv­ing-themed com­edy be­fore it, su­per­fi­cially ap­ing the well­worn genre in which long-sim­mer­ing dis­putes be­tween rel­a­tives boil over at the an­nual hol­i­day gather­ing. Here, how­ever, the yuks and high jinks quickly get uglier than usual, de­spite Kai’s ef­forts to keep things cor­dial. It’s a bril­liant de­ci­sion by Bar­in­holtz to cast Had­dish, against type, in the role of the fam­ily diplo­mat. The ac­tress is bet­ter known for play­ing char­ac­ters who do not sup­press their opin­ions, to put it mildly.

When Chris, who can’t help check­ing Twit­ter at the din­ner ta­ble, an­nounces, in out­rage, the news that a lib­eral con­gress­man has just been ar­rested and that Seth Ro­gen has been de­tained at the bor­der (one of the film’s bet­ter jokes), ar­gu­ments be­come vol­canic, lead­ing some­one in the room to make a call, sum­mon­ing agents from the Cit­i­zen’s Pro­tec­tive Unit – a Home­land Se­cu­rity-style po­lice force – to the house.

This is where things get re­ally in­ter­est­ing, and, for bet­ter or worse, more prob­lem­atic.

The CPU agents in­clude a vi­o­lent, far­right hot­head (Billy Mag­nussen) and his more sen­si­ble part­ner (John Cho). Their un­wel­come pres­ence – along with the like­li­hood that it was one of Chris’ guests who rat­ted him out to the lat­ter-day Gestapo – in­flames Chris, who is soon en­gaged in a con­fronta­tion with the law­men that turns re­gret­tably vi­tu­per­a­tive, and sur­pris­ingly vi­o­lent.

It feels all too pos­si­ble. And the echoes of real-world events lend the film’s fi­nal act a dis­turb­ing verisimil­i­tude that casts a no­tice­able pall over the pro­ceed­ings (mostly silly, but with a sub­stan­tive sub­text).

Two and one-half stars. Rated R. Con­tains crude lan­guage through­out, vi­o­lence and some drug use. 93 min­utes.

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