Barinholtz and Haddish play a married couple, a pair of well-to-do liberals, preparing to host Thanksgiving– and the out-of-town visitors that come with it — for his far more conservative family.
The week, moreover, is unfolding against a Black Friday deadline to sign a loyalty oath inaugurated by the government, a demand that Barinholtz’s Chris rejects as an act of conservative tyranny, putting him at odds with, among others, his brother (Barinholtz’s real-life sibling, Jon) and his girlfriend (Meredith Hagner).
“The Oath” nicely escalates at first, with Chris — a news junkie — constantly reacting to alerts on his phone, rushing into the other room to watch fresh outrages on cable news, despite his wife’s admonitions not to discuss politics.
The arrival of two government agents, however, played by John Cho and Billy Magnussen, takes the story in unexpected directions, with Barinholtz’s script — very smart in places — writing the movie into dark corners that it struggles to escape.
Nevertheless, the underlying issue that’s contemplated — about whether blood is thicker than political affiliation — has considerable weight, and the movie deftly probes the extent to which people would allow personal convictions to potentially threaten lives that they have labored to build. Beyond that, Haddish is allowed to deliver a more layered (if still occasionally funny) performance as a protective mother, who shares her husband’s beliefs but begins to question his priorities. (Her third movie, “Nobody’s Fool,” written and directed by Tyler Perry, opens Nov. 2.)
The obvious appeal of a broad, silly movie like “Night School” is that it represents an escape from today’s headlines, whereas a satire like “The Oath” compels the audience to confront them, albeit in fictionalized form.
“Night School,” of course, will almost surely make more noise at the box office, but in terms of both the conversation “The Oath” provokes and the dimensions that Haddish reveals, the echoes from the latter should last longer.
“Night School” opens Sept. 28 in the U.S., and “The Oath” opens on Oct. 12. They’re rated PG-13 and R, respectively.