By Elias Savada.
The hip medieval stew being served up in Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours is overcooked with naughty nuns sexually rampaging through the Tuscan countryside. Their simmering pelvic hunger knows very few bounds in this mid-14th-century romp that aims for a low common denominator of R-rated decency. It hits a bulls-eye of smugness, with an emphasis on ugh!
The Italian fields glimmer with wide-screen excitement as this low-brow production offers its young female leads (Allison Brie, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza) contemporary corporate interpretations in American gutter slang of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, most specifically one of its tales about a deaf mute stud muffin (Dave Franco) being ravaged by horny women of the cloth. The result is a high-spirited, but ultimately one-note sex farce.
As the film opens in the small municipality and rustic convent in Garfagnanna, it’s 1347, a year before the arrival of the Black Plague in this neighborhood of Europe. Is it sacrilege that one wish for the bubonic deaths of all the silly characters that parade about the film’s not-short-enough 89-minute running time? Monty Python gave us joy and humor with “Bring Out Your Dead” and other hilarious ditties in their Middle Ages comedies, so perhaps the music supervisor here could have swapped out one of the medieval compositions for a lyrical twist on a Frank Sinatra favorite, such as “Lust Be a Lady Tonight.”
Alas, this rebirth of the ribald convent comedy, mimicking what it thinks has the same gusto as such female-driven films as Bridesmaids, the recent Rough Night, or the forthcoming Girls Trip, is a sad excuse for something that wants to make its audience laugh. And boy did I laugh…at Bridesmaids. The best I could muster for The Little Hours was a snicker.
This is Baena’s third feature as a director. I haven’t caught either Life After Beth (2014) or Joshy (2016) and have no plans to play catch up with either of these coarse adult comedies. There’s a good number of repeat actors returning from either of those films for his latest, especially Plaza (Baena’s live-in girlfriend since 2011), who has been featured in all three. She can be dark and funny and menacing, but she has had better exposure with her roles on NBC’s seven-season Parks and Recreation (which featured Nick Offerman, who plays an angry, cuckolded nobleman in the film) and the renewed Marvel series Legion on FX. Those are scripted shows; The Little Hours arrived on location in Italy with a bare outline, the cast having done all their dialogue on the fly. As Sister Fernanda, she is the spiteful, loud troublemaker, willing to explode in an angry tirade at a moment’s notice.
Brie (Franco’s recent bride and much better remembered in Netflix’s hit series Glow and for her long stint on NBC’s Community) is Sister Alessandra, a downhearted nun hoping to get married. She’s the most down-to-earth of the trio that also features mousey, nosey Sister Ginevra (Micucci), who takes naked improvisation to devilish highs late in the film. Leading this small flock are Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly, the latter as a kind-hearted drunk whose recitations often revolve around sexual situations and positions, whether discussing various definitions of sodomy, ejaculation, and other “sins” within the confines of a rudimentary confessional. This “work ethic” is noticed by Bishop Bartolomeo (Portlandia‘s Fred Armisen), who provides one of the film’s few funny moments as he exasperatingly tries to reign in the debauchery afoot.
There’s all sorts of short bits, skits, and scenes, strung along like the stories in the original text, but definitely with more lust and lewdness. The flippant dialogue dismisses some of the more obvious inconsistencies (a problem if you’re working without a script). When Sister Fernanda’s childhood “friend” Marta (played by British-born artist/actress Jemima Kirke) stops by for a late night drink, Sister Ginevra wonders if she is from the South because of her accent.
This is an ecumenical misfire from the start, where chaste women aren’t and backstabbing a daily rite of passage. Where fathers are called dad, and that parent sardonically wonders if his daughter-nun is being fed (“You look terrific…are they feeding you?”). Men are either vulgar or drunk or studs. Women are all open to temptation. And donkeys…well, I’m not sure how they really fit in, but I can envision a potential joke setup, “A nun, a deaf-mute handyman, and a donkey walk into the woods….”
Let’s us pray…that The Little Hours stumbles out of art houses and into the gutter from where it came.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).