Raunchy comedies rarely cop to such well-regarded sources: The Little Hours claims its basis lies within Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century novella collection The Decameron, which makes its structure, bawdiness and characterizations all feel appropriately pithy. A series of incidents involving three horny nuns—Alessandra, Genevra, and Fernanda (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci and Aubrey Plaza, respectively)—and sexy farmhand-on-the-run Massetto (played by Dave Franco in full romance novel cover mode), The Little Hours finds writer/director Jeff Baena (who minored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies at NYU) delighting in updating The Decameron’s light and witty stories, helped by the fact that Boccaccio’s language was opposed to the flowery erudition of most of the period’s texts. That translates to a very vulgar (and funny) movie both indebted to and different than a wide spectrum of vulgar nun and nunsploitation movies that have spanned porn, hauntings and thrillers promising both nude nuns and big guns.
Though the connective tissue keeping the film’s story together often requires its thin characters to improvise or otherwise overstretch themselves from sketch to sketch—emphasizing their relative shallowness as short story subjects—the medieval absurdity at the heart of the comedy always lands. Partially due to the care Baena takes to situate us in a very specific time period (the filming took place in real castles from the era and the score/costuming feels spot-on), and partially thanks to the comic chemistry between its cast, each vignette keeps the “swearing holy woman” gag fresh.
The Little Hours’ plot as a whole is instigated by Massetto’s unfortunate cuckolding of the blunt, boring and politically-minded Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman, somewhere between Ron Swanson and a Game of Thrones throne-chaser), followed by his escape to a convent. Once there, he must act deaf and dumb so there’s no fuss about the young stud—whose shirt is almost always open—hanging around a temptation-averse nunnery. (That the aversion was secretly perversion all along fits perfectly in line with contemporary culture’s views of religious oppression.) Criticizing the practices of the church and satirizing the practice of families donating daughters to convents in lieu of a tithe, the film always bows to its women, even at their most oppressed. Establishing historical (and, analogically, modern) constraints for these women happens quickly and naturally, allowing the nuns’ misbehavior to become an immediate punchline.
Alessandra is the spoiled newcomer, Genevra a sheltered believer, with Brie and (especially) Micucci bringing a raging energy to their roles, which is particularly impressive considering that all but their faces are hidden away by habits for most of the film. When Brie reveals her hair and her neck, it’s incredibly sexualized due entirely to the success of the film’s ascetic aesthetic.
Meanwhile, Fernanda is simply Aubrey Plaza. Plaza’s schtick is the least interesting (though it still works) because it’s so squarely in line with her acting persona. It’s like if Alec Baldwin turned up as a smooth-talking textile merchant. Fernanda is the witchiest member of the convent, mysteriously running off to the woods in the middle of the night or getting drunk and frisky with her friend Marta (Jemima Kirke). The interplay of the nuns’ sexualities (Fernanda’s bisexuality spilling over to her nunmates) becomes some of the film’s strongest material, altering Micucci and Plaza’s relationship with one-sided experimental longing that mixes humor and impotency in a bittersweet aperitif, leaving us hungry for the film’s surprisingly sentimental payoffs.
One of these affecting moments comes from John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as romantically entwined church higher-ups. Both actors are at places in their careers where they’re always in danger of stealing movies from everyone around them, but in The Little Hours their silliness feels appropriately low-key against the bombastic profanity of the foregrounded nuns. They swear like they each dirty word is a personal “Hail Mary,” pouring out in response to each sinful event or strict policy: a neverending cycle of expletives as institutional rebellion.
This notion is only emphasized more when the local Bishop (Fred Armisen) rolls through town to discover that the realities of the idealized religious life must necessarily flaunt its expectations thanks to the pressures inherent in its enforcement. While the film can sometimes feel sparse, the combination of this defiant juxtaposition, its diligently-defined historical context and some perfectly-pitched nastiness cast The Little Hours into the midnight movie heavens. God, oh God, it’s funny.
Director: Jeff Baena
Writer: Jeff Baena
Starring: Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman
Release Date: June 30, 2017
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.