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Shelton’s ‘Sword:’ A comedy with edge

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In a spirit similar to fellow independent filmmakers Noah Baumbach and Nicole Holofcener, Lynn Shelton’s films are character-driven and tend to focus on neurotic but likable characters in quirky, unexpected situations. How they extricate themselves is usually part of the fun.

That is certainly the case with Sword of Trust, an appealing small-scale romp with an able ensemble cast. Occasionally theatrical and frequently droll, with a storyline that wouldn’t feel at all out of place in a traditional screwball comedy, it’s a very agreeable, even comfortable, way to spend 90 minutes.

Mary (Michaela Watkins) and Cynthia (Jillian Bell) are partners who have come to the latter’s childhood home in Alabama following her grandfather’s death. They’re expecting to inherit the house, only to learn it’s been reverse-mortgaged and now belongs to the bank. All they receive is an antique sword from the Civil War, which was the grandfather’s prized possession.

It’s not just any sword, according to eye-opening documentation attesting that it was surrendered by the North to the South. You read that right: The South actually won the Civil War – and the sword supposedly prov
es it.
Next stop: Delta Pawn, owned and operated by an embittered, middle-aged misanthrope named Mel (Marc Maron), alongside his uproariously slack-jawed sidekick Nathaniel (Jon Bass). They form an uneasy partnership with Mary and Cynthia upon learning that there’s an entire cottage industry devoted to the theory that the South won the Civil War and is willing to pay top dollar for an item such as the sword. If nothing else, they figure to get rich.

Off they go, on a day-long adventure that doesn’t unfold as they expect it to. Without ever being preachy or pretentious, the characters in Sword of Trust learn a little bit about themselves and each other and emerge from the experience a bit wiser.

The entire cast is good, including Toby Huss as a grizzled appraiser called “Hog Jaws,” Dan Bakkedahl as the sword’s prospective buyer, and Shelton herself as Mel’s on-again, off-again girlfriend (currently off-again), who’s a constant reminder of his failings and a constant impetus for his grumpy disposition. Even the smallest character is given shading in Shelton and Mike O’Brien’s screenplay.

Shelton is also renowned for her extracting laughs out of the actors’ improvisation, and there are some clear cases of that here, particularly in a riotous scene where Nathaniel explains to an understandably befuddled Cynthia why he believes the Earth is flat.

Yet it’s Maron who stands out. Shelton previously directed episodes of his series Maron and his 2017 stand-up special Marc Maron: Too Real and gives him a lot of room to maneuver without tipping the ensemble balance. He also contributed the film’s effective score and delivers an unexpectedly bittersweet, and legitimately dramatic, moment when he confesses his aforementioned failed romance.

Sword of Trust opens Friday

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.

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