After suffering through bloated Hollywood comedies with their force-fed sense of what’s funny, a shuffling, organic, low-key Southern comedy like Sword of Trust is a joy and palate cleanser.
Populated by some of the best- and least-known comic actors working today, Sword takes a simple premise and a collection of variously desperate characters and keeps the laughs coming for the duration of its 88-minute running time. It will leave you smiling and refreshed.
That terrible title identifies the storyline’s MacGuffin: a Civil War-era sword that means different things to different people. For Cynthia, the sword is all the inheritance she’s getting from her late grandfather. (She and her partner, Mary, were hoping for his house.) For Birmingham, Ala., pawnshop owner Mel, the sword could be a small gold mine if he can find the right buyer, a search that requires the help of his internet-addled assistant, Nathaniel.
The sword, it turns out, is a “prover item” — tangible evidence that the Confederacy really won the War of Northern Aggression, a theory religiously ascribed to by a small but fervent band of wingnuts with names like Hog Jaws. Who eventually steps up to buy the sword and what the sellers will do to close the sale is what the movie’s about.
But it’s not what drives the comedy. That job belongs to the terrific cast, led by Marc Maron (as Mel), a comedian and star of the oddball and endearing Netflix series “GLOW,” and Jillian Bell (as Cynthia), an actress who’s been brightening big comedies in small roles for years, including Rough Night, Fist Fight and Office Christmas Party. Both performers excel at the understatement of the absurd, and each gets a nice, extended “How I met the love of my life” monologue that’s both funny and touching.
Their sounding boards are Michaela Watkins (as Mary), an actor I was not previously familiar with, and Jon Bass (as Nathaniel), who’s had small parts in movies as diverse as Molly’s Game and Baywatch. Watkins’ Mary is the most grounded character, yet still gets some clever moments to herself (usually with Maron). Bass’s Nathaniel is the earnest young man who seems like a standard slacker but turns out to have hidden depths of nuttiness.
Also appearing late in the film is Dan Bakkedahl (HBO‘s “Veep”), channeling Gene Wilder with his ragged fringe of crazy hair and blend of nebbishness and untapped anger.
Keeping the balance among all these talents — and others in tiny but hilarious roles — is director Lynn Shelton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mike O’Brien. Shelton, who has a long resumé of TV comedies, casts herself in the most melancholic supporting part, a thread that adds some needed weight to the proceedings.
Sword of Trust doesn’t do a deep dive into internet conspiracy communities and what drives them, but it does use the phenomenon to great comic effect. It’s not so much a socially conscious movie as a humanistic diversion, taking an assortment of sympathetic characters on a brief and possibly dangerous journey and letting them learn a little something about themselves. You’ll be happy to have met them.
Starts Aug. 2 at Grail Moviehouse