Comedy, rated R, 88 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
There’s an aerial quality to Lynn Shelton’s quirky, lively comedy, as her characters seem to fly through the air with the greatest of ease, working without a net.
The net of that metaphor would be the script, if there were one. But as they negotiate this story of conspiracy looniness set in motion by an inherited Civil War-era sword, Shelton’s actors are winging it, improvising to the story structure laid down by her and co-writer Mike O’Brien.
But you’d never know it. The dialogue is witty, sometimes poignant, the scenes flow, and the actors — one of whom is Shelton herself — never miss a beat.
Prominent among equals in the cast is Marc Maron, the comedian and podcaster (WTF with Marc Maron), who plays Mel, a New Mexico native who has wound up running a pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama. His ethics are as rumpled as his appearance, and when Mary and Cynthia, a lesbian couple (beautifully played by Michaela Watkins and Jillian Bell, both veterans of the improv group The Groundlings) bring him the abovementioned sword, he’s ready to do some shady dealing. Mary, however, is no pushover.
The weapon comes with some intriguing backstory, scribbled on a few sheets of paper by Cynthia’s deceased grandfather. It is said to be the sword presented by a defeated Northern general (either Sherman or Sheridan) to Robert E. Lee at the Union’s final surrender to the Confederacy. There’s an engraving of the scene, and a certificate of authenticity, to back it up.
Mel, Mary, Cynthia, and Mel’s assistant Nathaniel ( Jon Bass) pursue the sale of the sword through a snake pit of internet conspiracy insanity (the South won the war; the misguided impression to the contrary is the product of an evil Deep State conspiracy, fake news, etc.) They get drawn into an uneasy confrontation with a group of white supremacist potential buyers (Toby Huss and Dan Bakkedahl) who will pay top dollar for a “prove rite” that confirms the South’s victory in the War of Northern Aggression. There’s a trip to an undisclosed location in the back of a panel truck, during which Mel movingly recounts some of his painful past.
Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister) lays on plenty of laughs, but there’s a layer of serious ideas lurking beneath the fun. You don’t need a certificate of authenticity to see how the craziness that Shelton slyly delivers here reflects the condition of the world we live in.