I’m not going to pretend I’m educated enough (read: at all) in 14th Century literature to develop an intriguing history-based critique of The Little Hours, a new comedy written and directed by Jeff Baena, based on The Decameron by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. That said, I like to laugh, and that’s good enough for The Little Hours.
The Little Hours takes a peek into the lives of some fallible Medieval nuns, an alcoholic priest, and a horny servant. Massetto—the aforementioned horny servant, played by Dave Franco—loses his job, and very nearly his testicles, after fooling around with the wife of his Guelph-obsessed master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). But he escapes and happens upon good ol’ drunk Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) who, having recently lost his convent handyman to torment by nuns, offers asylum in exchange for labor. Once at the convent, Massetto, pretending to be deaf and mute to avoid temptation, gets caught up in the torrid fantasies of nuns Alessandra (Allison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Genevra (Kate Miccucci). Mix in some witchcraft, anachronistic speech, and turnips and you’ve got yourself one hell of a movie.
Undeniably weird, The Little Hours is 100% inadvisable to watch in mixed company, which is part of the thrill, I guess. With the long overdue rise of female-fronted comedies, it can sometimes feel that women are out to prove that they can hang tough by being as foul-mouthed and gnarly as their male counterparts. While that can be grating (my unpopular opinion is that Bridesmaids is quite guilty of this), the magic of The Little Hours is that every character is in turn a “straight man” and a goofball when the moment is right, which gives the comedy room to breathe and each actor a moment to shine. Even the blue material is straightforward, and Baena knows when to pull back. Besides, it’s all (probably?) in the source material.
While Allison Brie and Kate Miccucci are hilarious in their roles as husband-seeking and lesbian Jewish nuns, respectively, Aubrey Plaza steals the show as the pot-stirring friend that you wish you weren’t even involved with, except she’s so cool that you maybe don’t mind flying too close to the sun. Plaza’s face is a treasure trove of expression that would impress even Winona Ryder. Every smile, eyeroll, and jutted jaw adds a laugh to a scene without Plaza needing to utter a word. She does, of course, and it’s always very funny.
Though most of the movie centers on the all of the eccentric doings at the convent, I keep coming back to an early segment at Lord Bruno’s keep, where Massetto is working as a servant and trying to keep his affair with Bruno’s dissatisfied wife a secret. Lauren Weedman absolutely kills as Lord Bruno’s wife, Francesca. In fact, the scenes of Nick Offerman’s droll Lord Bruno and Weedman’s snide Francesca taking stabs at one another over pheasant dinner is probably my favorite comedy of this year. Just as I adore the out-of-time-and-context speech of Thor (Avengers) and Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy), the way Offerman plays up the period comedy piece while Weedman plays it down, creates a vacuum of hilarity that isn’t quite there in other scenes.
As mentioned, I didn’t read the source material, but most viewers won’t either (if I’m wrong, may God strike me down), but it really doesn’t matter. While everyone in the convent from Father Tommasso to the nuns all have their own desires, be they to find a husband, be in favor, be a witch, or just be in love, these desires are what ultimately makes the story one that crosses the chasm of time. Humans are humans are humans forever. And they are horny.