America is a country divided against itself, and can careen through surges of paranoia at its darkest moments, often to a ludicrous degree. While that’s not the most attractive phenomenon, it can bolster great satire. The core premise of “The Oath” almost gets there: Ike Barinholtz’s uneven but inspired black comedy burrows into the essence of these divided times, transforming the all-too-familiar mold of the family dinner gone wrong into a wacky template for exploring the absurd partisanship on both ends of the political spectrum.
Think “The Purge,” with jokes: As the movie begins, impish liberal Chris (Barinholtz) and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish, in a thankless supporting role) listen to news reports of an upcoming government ultimatum — all American citizens must sign “The Patriot’s Oath,” a loyalty pledge to the unnamed president, by Black Friday. The pair laugh off the possibility that they would ever commit to such an inane order, but cut to five days before the deadline, and pretty much everyone in Chris’ circle has done the deed, including his best pal at work.
At home, he braces for a weeklong visit from his relatives, who stretch across the political spectrum: His sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) is a good-natured leftie, but his brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) hews closer to the party line. Making matters worse, Pat shows up with new girlfriend Abbie (a hilarious Meredith Hagner), who comes across like a femmebot Anne Coulter. Outside, the world’s falling apart; this typical middle-class American home will soon face a similar fate.
Abbie’s an obnoxious, bigoted cartoon who thinks Chris Rock is racist against white people and believes the pledge represents the apex of American patriotism — but Chris doesn’t fare much better: Director-star Barinholtz, who excels at playing overconfident goofballs in “Blockers” and “The Mindy Project,” endows his character with the same tone-deaf progressive lip service skewered in “Get Out.” He’s obsessed with taking a stand, reading the news of protests around the country and loudly complaining about miscarriages of justice while his relatives roll their eyes. His self-righteousness is a reductive punchline that gets old pretty quickly (he’s a feminist, he insists, because he went to a Roxanne Gay book signing) but “The Oath” at least makes the effort to build on this initial setup with a few fresh twists. At first, the scenario leads to an Agatha Christie-like investigation, with Chris gradually learning which of his relatives signed the pledge and growing increasingly baffled as the revelations erupt into feuds. In a less ambitious movie, these showdowns might form a third-act conflict, but Barinholtz has more twisted intentions.
After an awkward evening, government agents Mason and Peter (Billy Magnussen and John Cho, a terrific deadpan duo who could anchor a movie of their own) show up at the family’s suburban home with an anonymous report that Chris violated the pledge. After some masculine posturing goes awry, both agents are tied up as Chris suddenly has an unwieldy kidnapping situation on his hands, while his relatives scream and whine about the horrible pileup of circumstances. Magnussen’s perfectly cast as the stern, wide-eyed lawman who represents the ultimate challenge to Chris’ resolve, while Cho spends most of the movie dipping in and out of consciousness after he’s knocked onto the couch.
From here “The Oath” becomes increasingly bleak, shrill, and messy, with virtually every member of the cast barking at Chris as he struggles to maintain the alpha-male role in a situation spiraling beyond his grasp. Haddish, saddled with playing the straight role, seems to be restraining herself at every moment. Other characters, including Chris’ parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis), dangle on the sidelines like placeholders that Barinholtz forgot to fill in.
Still, he manages to derive some amusing observations about toxic masculinity in the contrast between Chris and Mason, an ex-military hothead who seems keen on provoking Chris at every turn. While “The Oath” lacks the subtlety that would help deepen the stakes of this complicated family dynamic, it does muster a shrewd observation about the essence of political allegiances when they’re reduced to a testosterone contest.
Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that this talky, irreverent little movie might have worked better as a play, given the way its theatrical arguments drive the movie forward more than its flat visual style. As a first-time writer-director, Barinholtz lacks the cinematic pizzazz and mystery of fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker Jordan Peele in “Get Out,” but “The Oath” hails from a different tradition: Its crass dependence on one-liners and loony caricatures resembles the material for a broad studio comedy — but no studio would ever bankroll a movie like “The Oath,” which skewers virtually every potential member of its audience.
Despite the audacity of this all-inclusive target, Barinholtz lets everyone off the hook with one overarching flaw: Because the movie has a fictional president with vague platforms, it’s a fantasy version of America just a few degrees removed from our own. Barinholtz makes that distance even greater with a sappy, upbeat ending that suggests a reticence to embrace the sheer cynicism of the story at hand. Despite tackling our crazy times, “The Oath” somehow winds up not quite crazy enough to assess them.
“The Oath” premiered at the 2018 L.A. Film Festival. Roadside Attractions releases it in theaters October 12.