THE LITTLE HOURS Review
Director: Jeff Baena
Genre: Historical Comedy
Assuming that you’re unaware of, or haven’t met some form of a Christian Sunday school teacher, picture a stereotypical, God-fearing, mid-western, 65-year-old white lady. Now, imagine her worst nightmare . . . and you have THE LITTLE HOURS. If, as the reader, you are said white lady, or have any issues with that metaphor, simply just don’t see this movie.
Set in a 14th century Italian convent, THE LITTLE HOURS is adapted by writer-director Jeff Baena from Italian author Giovanni Boccacio’s book THE DECAMERON. Baena has assembled an impressive army of offbeat comedic actors in a sexualized, religious, comedic farce, which refrains from directly mocking the institution of religion, but does question its antiquated ideas of chastity and control. Although enjoyable, Baena’s often-hilarious, capably shot, well-cast film could’ve been more effective in its satire and wit than what ends up on screen.
Some of the film’s best moments play out like an extended PORTLANDIA sketch, which wouldn’t be bad if Fred Armisen was in it for more than 15 minutes
It’s fortunate that the film contains some of the market’s most current, sought-after comedic talent, because despite consistently getting the feeling that half of the dialogue was ad-libbed, the on-screen mayhem rests in good hands. Sister Fernanda’s (Aubrey Plaza) attractive exterior only just barely holds in a fiery, uncontrollable desire to rebel. Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie) is forced to stay at the convent by her financially lucrative father, and Sister Genevra (Kate Micucci) is a nosy, nunnery poster child, suck-up until her rose-colored glasses are shattered. With the desire of something more than laundry and farming already brewing at the convent, things reach a high boil after handsome farmhand, Masetto (Dave Franco), is hired by the convent’s priest, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). Father Tommasso must also repress desires stemming from his attraction to Head Nun, Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).
Masetto’s recent hiring comes just hours after having an affair with local Lord Bruno’s (Nick Offerman) wife, Francesca (Laura Weedman). Donned in a wig of unruly copper-colored hair, Bruno seems to be the only character whose lines come directly from THE DECAMERON’s pages. Unlike the modern speech from the sisters of the convent, Bruno talks of Italian towns and lords in such detail and paranoia that he alienates Francesca to the point of adultery. In turn, this provides the impetus for Massetto’s escape. As a result, Bruno sets his sole two guards (Adam Pally, John Gabrus) after Masetto to restore his honor. Scenes with the guards chasing Masetto across a static, wide shot harken back to that of MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, where the hilarity of the moment contrasts with the picturesque Italian countryside.
The credit goes to Baena’s cinematographer, Quyen Tran. Here, comedy plays best when Baena relies on shot composition and his actors’ physicality, rather than improvised jokes and banter. Bright colors of the countryside oppose the crude language and actions from the film’s cast, nurturing the idea that what is seemingly beautiful is almost certainly not going to stay that way. It is at moments like these that Baena shows the most intentionality, utilizing sound, blocking, and picture to elicit visual and cinematic comedy. Mostly, and to its comedic detriment, the film relies on the wit and improvisation of its talented cast more than it should. Not that the stream of obscenities and bad-mouthing from medieval nuns isn’t funny per say, but rather an increased sense of comedic familiarity is created, and bawdy, ad-hoc jokes in the first 10 minutes no longer land as well after the first little hour (I’m sorry).
“Our costume and weapons budget consisted of the loose change found in a couch at THE GAME OF THRONES’ production office” – Jeff Baena’s diary
The chaotic debauchery of THE LITTLE HOURS runs out of steam about 30 minutes too early. This is unfortunate, because with a more impactful ending, the sexual and rebellious energy that populates the entirety of the second act of the film should have been directed towards its overall purpose. In the end, there is a quick resolution for its characters and a rough theme of love and free-will established, but there isn’t quite enough time spent on justifying why each character has endured such mayhem. On the other hand, there is no question that THE LITTLE HOURS is a wild ride, full of laughs and crammed with talent. Don’t show this to your deeply religious friends and family . . . or do, and maybe you’ll witness your own form of religious pandemonium. But, religion aside, it’s an entertaining and effective comedy that’ll earn laughs, appeal to fans of its cast, and possibly disappoint those who will recognize the film’s full potential.