Set in a country resembling the United States circa 2018, Ike Barinholtz’s The Oath is a lightweight dystopian comedy of manners which unfolds at that bellwether of American values: the family dinner table. The dystopia comes in the form of a president-issued “loyalty oath” to be signed by every American by Black Friday, and the comedy from conservatives and progressives sharing Thanksgiving dinner. The Oath wears itself thin fighting on both fronts, faltering as it takes extreme measures to drive home its sense of relevance.
Chris (Barinholtz), a hotheaded progressive with a severe addiction to the news, and his sympathetic though even-keeled wife, Kai (Tiffany Haddish), are both decidedly opposed to signing the oath. They’re hosting his conservative, pro-oath relatives for Thanksgiving, and everyone fears the occasion will be uncomfortable, if not hostile. It doesn’t help that Chris is on edge about rumors that the federal government is rounding up the oath’s critics. Come Turkey Day, attempts are made by Kai, her mother-in-law, Eleanor (Nora Dunn), and sister-in-law, Alice (Carrie Brownstein), to keep the peace, but Chris can’t seem to help himself around his family. They can hardly go a minute without fighting, each quippy argument packaged with a laundry list of topics that fill our current political discourse, and each nastier than the last.
Though it yields some risible observations about the current “what happened now?” news cycle, The Oath lacks much insight. Haddish and Meredith Hagner, who plays Chris’s brother’s Tomi Lahren-ish girlfriend, bring a chaotic liveliness to relatively meager roles, but they’re often crowded out by the film’s many half-hearted attempts at criticizing Chris’s “resistance” attitude, which often just comes down to foregrounding his sexist behavior. The abundant and numbing refrains of “I read a study that” and “what’s your source for that” feel more to the point and make good fun of the roundabout way that arguments in a time of information saturation unfold.
Contemporary discourse doesn’t lack for redundancy, but while the film’s jokes about The Way We Argue Now are familiar and good for a few laughs, they don’t seem to do much more than play as variations on what one could find in the comments section of a clip from The Daily Show. Save a scene involving a betrayal regarding the oath, very little is made of overblown arguments between people whose perspectives are vanishingly different, but diverge only on a fine point, a type of confrontation that’s exceedingly typical, unsettling to watch, and more reflective of the way conversations work now.
Perhaps because of this limited perspective, The Oath backs itself into a corner and, as if conscious of having run out of material, abruptly shifts registers, switching to a tonally confused kidnapping scenario. On Black Friday, government agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) arrive at Chris’s door to investigate him. After an altercation, the agents are injured and bound, and as they threaten everyone with jail time, Chris and his family debate how to proceed. Instead of using the situation’s extremity to bring the tensions the story is ostensibly about into relief, The Oath shifts gears again as Chris debates what really matters to him and everyone fights for survival.
The film’s ending belies a nihilism that sours its well-meaning front. The long arc involving the federal agents concludes with a deus ex machina that restores normalcy among those in Chris and Kai’s home. But even after exposing Chris and his family to a not-that-farfetched and pretty concrete horror, the film ends with the promise that political disagreements don’t really matter as long as we have family. Here, Barinholtz is trying to have his pumpkin pie and eat it too: The political nightmare on display is supposed to resonate because it’s believable or realistic, but, The Oath contends, shouldn’t be taken seriously because it doesn’t actually matter.
For a film that makes such a show of being in touch with the way the dizzying Donald Trump news cycle affects us all, this tone-deaf takeaway is a balk, and one that requires a lot of obtuseness to include while the scenario it imagines is currently playing out within immigrant communities across America. Even while it asks us to recognize ourselves in a world not too distant from our own, The Oath seems to say that the worst part of a full-fledged American dystopia would be the ruined holiday dinners.