When your serial molester president starts putting serial molesters on the Supreme Court, it’s time to at least consider the possibility that safe and tidy political satire as we know it is dead. Even Veep creator and In the Loop director Armando Ianucci looked to straight history rather than disguised fiction for his latest farce, The Death of Stalin. If satire is indeed deceased, then the ostensibly timely but hopelessly limp and scattershot comedy The Oath simply dumps another shovelful of dirt on the grave, as the film tries and fails to coast on its own hot-button fumes towards an easy resolution.
The Oath was co-written and directed by Ike Barinholtz, who also stars alongside Tiffany Haddish as a liberal married couple hosting Thanksgiving dinner for their politically divided family during a particularly contentious political moment. Barinholtz’s previous directing credits are limited to a handful of episodes of The Mindy Project, the sitcom on which he played a supporting part. That aesthetic feels right for The Oath, a film that can’t follow a single thread long enough to make it to a commercial break.
Barinholtz lays out the film’s high-concept stakes straight away, mostly relying on timely and on-the-nose news reports to forklift plot information: America’s conservative president has demanded that every citizen sign a patriot’s oath pledging fealty to the government, with a deadline set for the day after Thanksgiving. As the deadline approaches, the country grows increasingly fractured, with riots on the rise and ominous reports of a shadowy and sinister government agency harassing and arresting holdouts.
For angrily self-righteous liberal Chris (Barinholtz) and sympathetic but increasingly impatient Kai (Haddish), the impending signing deadline only adds more stress to an already stressful family dynamic. Chris’ sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) is a fellow liberal, but brother Pat (Jon Barinholtz) is a pugnacious conservative who brings along his Kellyanne Conway clone girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hanger), while his parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) are largely ambivalent but completely tactless nonetheless.
Most of the first half of The Oath is at least affably aimless, filled with leisurely paced scenes that hit all the expected notes of family dysfunction and political tribalism. It’s in the second half where the narrative wheels start turning, and the film goes completely off the rails. After a series of increasingly intemperate family arguments, a couple of stoic government spooks (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) visit the house, and the situation escalates into a slapstick hostage crisis.
Complications pile on from there, but like many a feeble social commentary before it, every intractable conflict in The Oath suddenly gets resolved when an old white man shows up and says words. Of course, the toothless satire might be less noticeable if the comedy wasn’t so similarly gummy, but most of The Oath is rambling and uninspired, mostly amounting to one-note stereotypes shouting at each other. If you want to satirize something that poses a clear and present danger, then don’t be so damn safe.