Give writer-director Jeff Baena credit: Even when he aims high, that doesn’t stop him from going deliciously low.
With “The Little Hours,” Baena takes his inspiration from no less rarefied a text than “The Decameron,” Italian writer Giovanni Bocaccio’s sprawling set of 14thcentury novellas. Repurposing the characters and story from one of the books, Baena combines a medieval-looking setting and production design with modern-day English and mannerisms to create a boldly anachronistic film, filled with humor that’s alternately ribald and ingratiatingly goofy, even after it begins to wear tiresomely thin.
Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci and Alison Brie play Fernanda, Genevra and Alessandra, three young nuns living under the tutelage of the gentle-souled Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) and a tippling priest named Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). When Tommasso happens upon a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco), who is escaping a husband he’s been cuckolding, he takes the young man back to the convent to work as a day laborer. In the bucolic, repressed surroundings of the religious order, Massetto meets with the kind of pent-up sexual desires and machinations that, in “The Beguiled,” are played for dark horror but here are the stuff of lusty comedy, satiric eye-rolling and general slapstick malarkey.
Please note: Plaza, who’s credited as one of the film’s producers, also happens to be married to Baena, and Brie is married to Franco. With such supporting players as Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman and Lauren Weedman, “The Little Hours” has the feeling of a let’s-put-on-a-show lark, similar to Joss Whedon’s homemade production of “Much Ado About Nothing” a few years ago.
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The experiment of putting Bocaccio into contemporary vernacular occasionally results in some inspired lunacy: If the novelty of nuns hurling f-bombs swiftly fades, Reilly is perfectly deadpan during the film’s frequent confession scenes, and Micucci delivers a wonderfully eccentric performance as a vulnerable sister whose sexual adventures lead her to run, naked and belladonna-crazed, into a group of cavorting pagans.
Even with Armisen’s late save of the show, as a disapproving bishop, however, “The Little Hours” seldom rises above a clever but lightweight one-liner. There’s a subtext here having to do with female empowerment, pietistic hypocrisy and finding God in the sacred and the profane, but it’s submerged under what is essentially a very long, slightly wan Monty Python sketch.
“The Little Hours” is a bawdy bagatelle that has more than a few droll moments. But it was probably at its most pleasurable and amusing in the making.
The Little Hours
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, Dave Franco, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke
Director: Jeff Baena
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: R (contains graphic nudity, sexual content and obscenity)
Raleigh: AMC 15. Durham: Southpoint. Chapel Hill: Silverspot.