(CNN)Tiffany Haddish is having a very-in-demand moment, which explains why she has a pair of movies premiering within two weeks, and another in November. Yet if forced to choose, skip “Night School” — a remedial-level comedy with Kevin Hart — and take “The Oath,” an uneven but far more ambitious and provocative independent film, written and directed by her co-star, Ike Barinholtz.
Although “Night School” reunites Haddish with “Girls Trip” director Malcolm D. Lee, the focus is more squarely on Hart as Teddy, a guy who failed to graduate high school and now needs a GED to advance his career. Moreover, he’s enrolled in the class without telling his successful girlfriend (Megalyn Echikunwoke), forcing him to conceal his nighttime activities, and adding a degree of difficulty to the proceedings.
What emerges, though, feels primarily like a blown-up version of a bad sitcom, with Hart sharing the class with a bunch of eccentrics, played by the likes of Rod Riggle, Mary Lynn Rajskub and Al Madrigal. Haddish, meanwhile, is the tough but caring teacher, who in one sequence keeps beating Teddy up in an effort to get him to learn, presumably because the physical comedy provided good fodder for the coming attractions.
Indeed, “Night School” makes the mistake of essentially calling attention to its own excesses, at one point noting that Teddy speaks in a high, exaggerated voice when he’s nervous or lying. Yet Hart also tends to do just that when he’s trying to wring maximum mileage out of weak material, so it’s telling just how frequently he lapses into that pitch here.
Haddish, too, appears to be operating largely on autopilot. That can’t be said for “The Oath,” which begins with a powerful hook — the political polarization of the current time, even within families — before taking off in directions that foster tension and uncomfortable laughs, without fully realizing the premise.
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.