Since we somehow never caught Ike Barinholtz on “Mad TV” or “The Mindy Project,” our impression of the gap-toothed goofball has been formed largely from his supporting gig in Seth Rogen’s “Neighbors” comedies. He was amusing in “Blockers,” too, sticking with us partly for little flourishes he brought to his absentee-dad character. Fumbling to reconnect with his teenage daughter, the guy intermittently name-checks “Twilight” and other dated points of reference from before he parentally bailed. They’re surprisingly thought-out touches from a raunchfest about prom night.
Which brings us to the aggressively topical dark comedy “The Oath,” Barinholtz’s feature debut as writer-director. It seems in character that he’s out to tweak family-gathering genre conventions, showing us a Thanksgiving dinner where political talk goes from uncomfortable to downright violent. He works hard to creatively lampoon a nation divided, and his first-timer’s ambition and thematic investment are admirable. Disappointingly, though, he lacks storytelling chops, aiming for wildly provocative satire but instead churning out a technically spotty screed.
Chris (Barinholtz) is a diehard liberal and cable-news junkie thrown into an epic tizzy by an announcement that America’s (unnamed) president is calling on citizens to sign a patriotism-affirming “Loyalty Oath.” Chris’s wife (arbitrarily cast Tiffany Haddish) sympathizes, but is equally worried about what the Oath’s Black Friday signing deadline means for Thanksgiving dinner with his family, a tense proposition even in good times.
Chris promises to be cool, but reneges as soon as his brother (Barinholtz’s real-life sibling, Jon) arrives with his latest similarly conservative girlfriend (Meredith Hagner). Chris’s sister (Carrie Brownstein, “Portlandia”) and parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) act as buffers, but they can do only so much, especially when Mom also has to focus on sharing all the latest obits from back home. (This modest recurring gag is one of a few that do help to keep us from dismissing Barinholtz’s directing completely.)
Revelations about who has signed and who hasn’t are fast souring the family’s mood when a pair of quasi-law-enforcement agents (gamely mischievous Jon Cho and “Game Night” player Billy Magnussen) show up in response to a subversion tip. Barinholtz’s ranting has already been beating us down when Magnussen’s right-winger starts threatening his own style of beatdown, a precipitously escalating turn begging to be tagged as shockingly funny. A couple of hiccups, though: Barinholtz handles the episode so bluntly that it’s just not fun, and not particularly shocking, either. And yet he’s a rookie we were rooting for, we swear.
Written and directed by Ike Barinholtz. Starring Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Jon Barinholtz, Carrie Brownstein, Jon Cho, Billy Magnussen. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 93 min. R (language throughout, violence, some drug use).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.