The Little Hours ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Jeff Baena.
Written by: Jeff Baena.
Starring: Alison Brie (Alessandra), Dave Franco (Massetto), Kate Micucci (Ginerva), Aubrey Plaza (Fernanda), John C. Reilly (Father Tommasso), Molly Shannon (Sister Marea), Fred Armisen (Bishop Bartolomeo), Jemima Kirke (Marta), Nick Offerman (Lord Bruno), Lauren Weedman (Francesca), Paul Reiser (Ilario), Adam Pally (Guard Paolo), Paul Weitz (Lurco), Jon Gabrus (Guard Gregorio).
The Little Hours is a bawdy sex farce set in 14th Century shot on location in Italy, with period accurate costumes and sets, but with actors who make absolutely no effort to disguise their modern way of speaking. It tells the tale of sexy nuns, and drunken priests, rich nobles, and their lowly servants and in it, everyone is fucking everyone else at all times. Written and directed by Jeff Baena, The Little Hours doesn’t go for eroticism at all – it shows the silly, funny, goofy side of sex – but it does contain at least an undercurrent of the feeling that something is deeply wrong with this whole setup. It’s a film that I like in concept much more than I like in execution – which kind of peters out about half way through, and despite some inspired lunacy in the final minutes courtesy of Kate Micucci, doesn’t really add up to much. At half the length, this could be inspired – but at 90 minutes, the laughs are too few with too much in between.
At the center of the film are three nuns, all at the nunnery, even if they don’t much want to me – Alessandra (Alison Brie) is the daughter of a wealthy merchant (Paul Reiser, doing nothing to disguise his Jewishness – in fact, he may well be playing it up), fallen on hard times and cannot afford a dowry right now. Don’t worry, he says, some people’s calling is the warmth and love of family, but Alessandra will always have her embroidery. Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is, well, the same wonderful comic persona Plaza plays in everything this side of Legion – who hates everyone and everything, and some secrets she’s hiding. Only Ginerva (Micucci) even seems like she has any faith at all – but that could just be her people pleasing personality, that makes her tell the Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) everything everyone else is doing. The Priest who oversees the convent is Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and he’s drunk on Communion wine most of the time – he blessed it himself, though, so it’s cool. At a nearby castle, servant Massetto (Dave Franco) has had to go on the run when his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers that he is sleeping with his wife – Francesca (Lauren Weedman – who I would have loved to see more of here). He ends up running into a drunken Tommasso in the forest, and agrees to become the convent handyman – and pretend to be deaf and mute, for reasons the film explains, but really, it’s because it would be funnier. He promptly starts sleeping with both Alessandra – who believes this is a real relationship – and Fernanda – and her buxom friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) – who have ulterior motives.
For a while, all of this works. For the most part, everyone is playing the film with a straight face, which makes long conversations about where Massetto spills his seed, even funnier than they otherwise would be. There isn’t much of a plot, but it doesn’t need one – the comic performers are rather inspired, and the whole thing is pleasing goofy. Micucci is, in particular, a highlight stealing the movie from her more well-known co-stars, especially in the last act, where she pretty much goes nuts. There are strange visual gags – a turtle with a candle on his back for instance makes an extended experience – and the appearance of Fred Armisen later in the movie serves to underline just how absurd it is for all these nuns – and their priest – to be behaving this way. (The Catholic Church in America has seen fit to come out against the movie – they’d have been smarted just to not mention it).
I know some are going to think that The Little Hours is one of the best – and funniest – comedies of the year, and good for them. But I just didn’t laugh all that much, and although the comedy runs only 90 minutes, it felt much longer than that. When you have a film like The Little Hours, laughter is pretty much all the film offers, so if you don’t find it all that funny, you’re not left with much else to hold onto. I admire what the film was trying to do, it just didn’t get there for me.