Film Review: The Little Hours

Jeff Baena’s 14th-century-set comedy is an uneven but amusing mix of pious profanity.
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The pious turns profane in generally inspired fashion in The Little Hours, writer-director Jeff Baena’s (Joshy) ribald mishmash of stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century book The Decameron. Set at a convent populated by a group of nuns and a priest whose loyalty to the Lord is constantly put to the test by their own failings—by which I mean their fondness for swearing, their thirst for alcohol and their hunger for sex in all its many filthy forms—it’s a comedy awash in sacrilegious revelry, tossing together a variety of medieval figures into a lurching lampoon about suppression, desire and deviance. Rarely has devotion been this dirty.

The Little Hours’ humor comes, first and foremost, from the disconnect between its centuries-old source material (and setting) and the irreverent modern attitude that Baena employs in adapting it for the screen. That’s apparent from the outset, when Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) lashes out at gardener Lurco (Paul Weitz) with a barrage of contemporary curses, all because he dared look at her and fellow nun Genevra (Kate Micucci). Things don’t get more proper from there, as the action cuts to the nearby castle of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), whose wife Francesca (Lauren Weedman)—sick of her husband’s paranoia-drenched blathering—is carrying on a torrid affair with servant Massetto (Dave Franco). When their illicit relationship is exposed, Massetto flees into the woods, where he aids Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly)—who’s drunkenly ruined the goods he hoped to sell at market—and, for his kindness, is hired as the convent’s new gardener.

The first catch is that, to take that post, Massetto must pretend to be deaf and mute. The bigger catch, however, is that his new place of employment is run by a drunkard (who’s also quite interested in hearing the X-rated details of Massetto’s prior tryst) and occupied by hot-to-trot nuns including Alessandra (Alison Brie), a young woman eager for her convent-benefactor father (Paul Reiser) to find her a husband. Massetto’s arrival sends these women into a hedonistic tailspin, pricking their fingers in order to use blood as rouge, sneaking off to mount Massetto when no one else is around, and—in the film’s maddest bit—driving them, courtesy of Fernanda and her local “friend” (Jemima Kirke), to partake in a nude sacrificial witchcraft ritual out in the woods.

Sexual abandon and woozy merriment follow, all under the nose of visiting Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armison), who gets a standout sequence in which he expresses frustrated outrage at the litany of sins being committed by his flock—and the lack of humility they feel about their offenses. The Little Hours is never less than brazenly crude in both form and content, and when its gags don’t land, it’s largely due to the fact that there’s really only one joke here, delivered in numerous slightly modified ways. Nonetheless, on the strength of its excellent cast (and, in particular, the reliably insane Plaza and Reilly), it delivers enough obscene unholy absurdity to consistently amuse.

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