[Screen It]

"THE OATH"
(2018) (Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: Members of a family argue about politics over Thanksgiving including a patriotism oath everyone in the country is supposed to sign.
PLOT:
Chris Powell (IKE BARINHOLTZ) is a forty-something bleeding heart white liberal who's married to an African-American woman, Kai (TIFFANY HADDISH), with whom they have a daughter, Hardy (PRIAH FERGUSON). An avid news watcher, Chris has become increasingly agitated by how things are progressing in America, with the latest outrage coming from all citizens having been asked to sign a Patriot Oath and do so by around the time Thanksgiving rolls around. It's voluntary, but certain bad things are implied if one doesn't comply, including possible repercussions from the Citizen's Protective Unit (CPU).

In Chris' mind, this is anti-American and Kai agrees, but wants him to tamp down his anger over the holiday, what with his family showing up, knowing full well they don't all share the same political beliefs. Besides his parents -- Hank (CHRIS ELLIS) and Eleanor (NORA DUNN) -- there's Chris' conservative brother, Pat (JON BARINHOLTZ), and his new even more right-wing girlfriend, Abbie (MEREDITH HAGNER). Chris' fellow left-leaning sister, Alice (CARRIE BROWNSTEIN), shows up with her kids and flu-stricken husband, Clark (JAY DUPLASS), and it's not long before the discussion turns to politics and specifically the Oath.

Things become tenser when two members of the CPU -- hothead Mason (BILLY MAGNUSSEN) and more diplomatic Peter (JOHN CHO) -- show up and want to speak to Chris, even though he hasn't done anything illegal. They refuse to leave unless he signs the Oath or comes with them, both of which he refuses. From that point on, it's uncertain how things are going to play out and whether the family will remain splintered or come together to deal with this outside threat.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The old saying goes that politics makes for strange bedfellows, and that's definitely true what with the unholy political alliances that often pop up. But politics also makes for uncomfortable dining scenarios, especially as our country becomes ever more divided between the left and right with few DMZ style safe havens being around anymore.

You'd think a family gathering over a holiday might be one of those, but as history has proved time and again -- and even long more the recent height of political intolerance, hatred and retreating back to one's "side" that now permeates our society -- that might be one of the worst places to look for such peace.

The movies have often played off that family get-together over the holidays strife, but most likely rarely to the extreme found in the latest such offering, "The Oath." Knowing next to nothing about the flick before attending our press screening, I figured it was just another such Thanksgiving-based dysfunctional family dramedy we usually get every few years, and much of it certainly plays out that way.

But not before laying the basic storyline premise of a forty-something man (Ike Barinholtz) who's appalled upon hearing the news that American citizens are being heavily "encouraged" to sign a patriotic loyalty oath and need to do so within the next year. Despite its stated intention, Chris sees such a forced measure as being anti-American in that it's something usually associated with dictatorships and other such "do what we say or else" political regimes.

Flash forward a year and the clock is ticking down toward the deadline, but Chris still refuses to sign, with his wife (Tiffany Haddish, playing it straight and subdued for a change) seeming to agree with his stance, although she'd rather none of that come up while they're hosting Thanksgiving at their house.

And that's a smart move since her brother-in-law (Jon Barinholtz) and his girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) are very conservative like the brothers' father (Chris Ellis), but unlike their sister (Carrie Brownstein) who sides with Chris, while their mother (Nora Dunn) seems happy to refrain from any such talk.

While the film appears on its surface to be geared for the left and their fears of the right, the liberal side -- at least in terms of the protagonist -- isn't sparred some scolding. As written, directed and portrayed by Barinholtz, our protagonist often comes off as a self-righteous jerk who lives in his own political lane and anyone who doesn't agree better get off his highway.

That leads to various familial confrontations -- some to be expected, some as a surprise -- and while much of that's laced with satirical humor, that family strife, arguments and such begin to make this as uncomfortable as experiencing the same thing firsthand in person.

Perhaps sensing that or simply wanting to take things up a notch or two, the filmmaker then introduce two nebulous members of the CPU (Citizen's Protection Unit) -- played by Billy Magnussen and John Cho -- who show up uninvited and won't leave the house until Chris answers some questions about why he won't sign the oath.

It's then that the flick's true cautionary flags are raised in regard to people taking political ideology and general marching orders into their own hands, thus creating something of a government-backed (or, at a minimum, blind eye approach) mob mentality of "us" dealing with "them."

The filmmaker also seems interested, though, in exploring the notion of family over external threat as we watch the seemingly fractured and hate-filled members come together to deal with this new scenario. Alas, just when the tension and unpredictable nature hit their crescendo, the flick takes the easy way out to immediately diffuse both the situation and the most volatile of the players.

It's something of a cop-out of an ending, as if those involved were too scared to take the film to the next step of exploring just how far families and the quest for blind patriotism will go. Up until that point, the 90-some minute offering is a mixed bag that always seems just a step and notch or two from living up to its full potential based on the premise. Not likely to get the left and right in bed together -- politically -- to watch it, "The Oath" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 19, 2018 / Posted October 19, 2018


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