When farce is good, the nuttiness and improbability aren’t quite random. You can feel through the clamor that there’s a point to it, and that the chaos on screen connects at least somehow to the chaos within the lives of human beings. Few of us may want to identify with the characters in Dumb and Dumber, or the Monty Python movies, or the Marx Brothers and the screwball comedies of the 1930s, but you can’t help seeing bits and pieces of yourself in those loony antics.
Sword of Trust doesn’t have that command of itself. It may be nutty, but it’s also weak and scattered, because the makers of the picture haven’t yet drawn a bead on a target. Sometimes it seems they just don’t like certain categories of people. And the pretentious title offers no direction or cohesion.
Sword of Trust begins in two places at once. Cynthia (Jillian Bell) thinks she’s about to inherit her grandfather’s house, but when she and her partner Mary (Michaela Watkins) meet with the executor of the estate, they learn that grandfather lost the house to the bank, and there’s nothing left for Cynthia except an old Civil War sword. And with it, a sheaf of certificates that supposedly prove that in fact the South won the Civil War. Don’t ask.
At the same time, Mel (comic Marc Maron) runs a pawn shop in Mobile with his dopey assistant Nathaniel (Jon Bass). From here it’s no mystery – the four get together when Mary and Cynthia want to sell the sword, although why they go to a pawn shop is unexplained. And from there, the film grows ever more tangled, but not often more playful, and one problem is that the characters who should be at least partly sane, have no more grasp of actuality than the weirdos with their loony proofs that this sword shows how mainstream history is in error. As Nathaniel and Cynthia share a moment of heart-to-heart sincerity, Nathaniel goes off his tracks.
So, the story needs stability. It needs an anchor. You must be able to trust that the filmmakers know where they are and what they’re doing, but Sword of Trust feels like a bunch of unrelated skits. The Civil War obsessives are also bigots, but the movie has no frame to give shape or meaning to the bigotry – their malevolence just pops into the film out of the blue, and just as quickly falls out of sight. It’s also interesting that this film directed by and co-written by a woman, sets a man in the role of the one sane guy around, whose steadiness can make everything make sense. But Mel is hardly that force of reason, and he certainly does not provide the glue the movie needs to hold itself together.
What the movie does have, though, and it makes the picture watchable, is a charming sense of informality. The crises of plot are just silly, but in the in-between moments, as when another shopkeeper brings Mel some tea, director Lynn Shelton gets a sweet, relaxed presence from her actors.
At its best, Sword of Trust is like hanging around with a few friends with nothing going on. But that’s not enough.
Sword of Trust opens Friday, July 26th at the Chez Artiste.