‘The Oath’: Political issues divide Thanksgiving table in an edgy social satire

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Playing family members and loved ones gathered for a contentious Thanksgiving are Meredith Hagner (from left), Jon Barinholtz, Carrie Brownstein, Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis in “The Oath.” | Roadside Attractions

Most memorable Thanksgiving movie scene of all time?

My vote goes to the family dinner sequence in Barry Levinson’s “Avalon,” set in the suburban Baltimore of the 1950s.

When perennially tardy Gabriel Krichinsky finally arrives at his brother Sam’s home and sees everyone already digging in, he explodes:

“You started without me? You cut the turkey without me? Your own flesh and blood, and you couldn’t wait? You CUT THE TURKEY? That’s it. That’s the last time we come for Thanksgiving!”

The ensuing argument outside the home between the brothers peels back layers of differences and resentments that cut far deeper, so to speak, than a turkey-slicing controversy.

Ike Barinholtz’s “The Oath” is a blunt instrument of social satire and could hardly be more different in overall tone than Levinson’s complex and nuanced and poignant story about an immigrant family in the America of the mid-20th century — and yet the feuding brothers in “The Oath” reminded me of the feuding brothers in “Avalon.”

In “Avalon,” the turkey dispute ignites the Thanksgiving Day fireworks. In “The Oath,” the launching point is political differences. But in both cases, the stage had long been set for an epic confrontation, and it was only a matter of time before SOMETHING served as the catalyst to bring it all out and into the open.

“The Oath” is set in a parallel, exaggerated America in which an unnamed, slightly unhinged and power-hungry president has introduced a “Patriot’s Oath” and has asked all U.S. citizens to sign the pledge. It’s voluntary, of course — but those who sign will receive certain tax benefits, and those that DON’T sign might find themselves (and their families) under scrutiny from the government-sanctioned Citizens Protection Unit. (You can imagine the types of gung-ho volunteer “patriots” who would sign up for THAT organization.)

Writer-director Barinholtz, best known for playing likable oafs on “The Mindy Project” and in movies such as “Blockers” and the “Neighbors” comedies, stars as Chris, a good-guy family man who wears his liberal values on his sleeve.

Chris can’t be bothered to disguise his disdain for anyone who doesn’t see things his way, and his disgust for those who cave in to workplace or family pressure to sign the Oath before the Black Friday deadline.

So, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for Chris and his wife Kai (Tiffany Haddish) to host a Thanksgiving weekend for Chris’ family, some of whom don’t exactly see eye to eye with Chris politically, right?

The guest list includes Chris’ loving if a bit daffy parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis); his abrasive brother Pat (Ike’s brother Jon Barinholtz) and Pat’s new ultra-conservative girlfriend, Abbie (Meredith Hagner), and their relatively grounded sister Alice (Carrie Brownstein) and Alice’s husband (Jay Duplass), who spends most of the weekend sick in bed. (Casting the talented and interesting Jay Duplass and then benching him for most of the movie seems like a lost opportunity.)


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To Barinholtz’s credit, he doesn’t turn Chris into some crusading hero for truth, justice and the American way. Blinded by a self-righteous sense of superiority, Chris doesn’t realize he’s just as annoying and just as closed-off to opposing views as his right-wing counterparts. (There’s a moment when Kai veers away from Chris on a certain issue, and Chris actually deigns to lecture Kai about how she should feel as an African-American woman — and I’ll just leave it at that.)

The first half of “The Oath” is a sharp, dialogue-driven, intentionally uncomfortable and often quite funny slice of family strife.

When a pair of Citizens Protection Unit agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) come knocking on the door, demanding to know why Chris hasn’t signed the loyalty pledge, things take a violent and decidedly absurd turn. It’s the kind of bold shift in tone that might well send some viewers to the exits while tickling the twisted fancy of others.

I found it to be the equivalent of a free-swinging slugger who is willing to strike out once, twice, even three times — but then hits one clear out of the park. It’s worth the risk-reward ratio.

‘The Oath’


Roadside Attractions presents a film written and directed by Ike Barinholtz. Rated R (for language throughout, violence and some drug use). Running time: 93 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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