There are few chores more taxing on the film festival circuit than sitting through an improv-based comedy whose performers don’t have the skill set to pull it off — an unfortunate sight that’s been turning up all too regularly since “Waiting for Guffman” made well-executed improv comedy look deceptively easy nearly a quarter-century ago. The considerable pleasure of Lynn Shelton’s latest “Sword of Trust” is that everyone onscreen is so good at this kind of work that one wishes more tightly scripted comedy screenplays had such savory dialogue, or inspired character conceptions.
A shaggy-dog tale that throws together a handful of strangers seeking profit from an alleged Civil War artifact, “Sword of Trust” is light and loose, the kind of movie likely to illicit chuckles if seen at home (rather than the guffaws it earned from receptive crowds at its SXSW premiere). But in its small way, it does have something to say about our escalating culture of conspiracy theorists, revisionist history, and retro racial attitudes, albeit too frivolously to cause actual offense to those who pray the South shall rise again. Prospects will be modest, but could at least match that of Shelton’s earlier “Humpday” — and this is the funnier film of the two.
Mel (comedian and podcaster Marc Maron) is a Southwesterner who for convoluted reasons now operates a pawn shop in Birmingham, Ala., with slack-mouthed Nathaniel (Jonathan Bass) his not-very-helpful assistant. One day, lesbian couple Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell) bring in the only thing the latter’s freshly deceased grandpa left her: a sword he believed had been given in official surrender during the Civil War … by the North. Well, grandpa was 98 and had dementia. The women reject Mel’s low-ball offer for this hunk of mythology and traipse off.
While none too bright, Nathaniel is good for at least one thing: He really knows them intranets, especially compared to his Luddite boss. A few clicks later, he’s discovered that more than a few folk believe “the South really won,” and that official history is a damn lie. What’s more, there are people out there collecting items that might ballast such an outlandish theory — and who might be willing to pay very good money for them.
Having brokered a profit-sharing deal (making up for pushover Cynthia, Mary is a mean negotiator), the four new business allies find themselves entertaining an emissary (Toby Huss) from one such deep-pocketed collector (David Bakkedahl), then reluctantly going off in the back of a delivery van to meet the man himself. They might emerge $40,000 richer, or never be heard from again — though in fact what ensues involves a different outcome entirely.
Though doubtless somebody somewhere will grimace at so many Yankees making fun of the South, “Sword of Truth” is goofy enough to avoid seeming mean-spirited, even when two prize rubes (Tim Paul and Whitmer Thomas as Zeke and Jake) appear to have strayed from a downmarket version of “Hee-Haw.”
The primary characters are all self-absorbedly eccentric in their own ways, and their contrasting dynamics make for a disarming mix: Maron’s acerbity, Watkins’ spikiness, plus the two different types of tumbling-tumbleweeds mental prowess demonstrated by Bell and Bass make very entertainingly discordant music together. What should be the dullest thing here — a long scene that finds the four trapped in the back of a windowless truck — is delightful for affording the characters a chance to invent backstory, and the sustained group riffage between the performers. It also provides Shelton a moment to sandwich a little seriousness into this breezy enterprise, as 15-years-sober Mel describes the “constant heartache” of a relationship with a troubled woman we’ve already met, played by the director herself.
Shot on location in Alabama, “Sword of Trust” is pleasant and unfussy in its packaging, with all focus securely placed on the excellent cast. Though there’s an inevitable meandering quality to this kind of exercise, with scenes mostly improvised within Shelton and Mike O’Brien’s scripted framework, Tyler L. Cook’s editing feels very alert. Adding flavor is a soundtrack of solo blues guitar (and a final full-band song) by Maron himself.