Director: Jeff Baena
Starring: Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armison, Nick Offerman
Incongruity has always been one of comedy’s key tools and things don’t get much more incongruous than an American sex farce set in a 14th century Italian convent. Say hello to Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours.
A loose adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century work The Decameron, The Little Hours tells the story of three young nuns – Alessandra (Brie), Generva (Micucci) and Fernanda (Plaza) – living in a convent in provincial Italy in 1347. Under the watchful eye of Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) the sisters go about their daily duties washing clothes, caring for the livestock, making handicrafts for sale at the market, and studying the scriptures. On a trip to the market, Father Tommasso comes across Massetto (Dave Franco), a young servant who has fled his former home having been caught in an affair with his master’s wife. Tommasso agrees to shelter him at the convent, offering him work as a groundskeeper. He suggests that in order to avoid conflict with the young nuns, whose ire caused the last groundskeeper to resign, he should pretend to be a deaf mute. However, for Sisters Alessandra, Fernanda and Generva, this handsome, deaf mute appears to provide the perfect opportunity to explore their sexual curiosity.
The effectiveness of Baena’s film all comes down to its marrying of the new and the old. The film starts with Fernanda and Generva in earnest discussion about how the convent’s donkey keeps escaping, when all of a sudden they unload an expletive-laden tirade of 21st century vitriol on a gardener who dares to say hello to them. As a viewer it startles you. The illusion of the period setting is shattered. They are new world characters with modern day speech and sensibility dropped into this old world setting. The characterisation of the young sisters is straight out of a high school movie. Fernanda is the sarcastic, acerbic troublemaker. Alessandra is the spoilt brat who gets special treatment because her dad has donated lots of money to the convent. Generva is the awkward hanger-on who is constantly running to the teacher to tell on her friends. As in many a high school movie, these are repressed young women, who are eager to break out of their shells and discover the world.
The Little Hours’ strength lies in its ensemble cast of familiar faces from American film and, in particular, TV comedy, all of whom are allowed to play to their strengths. Brie, Plaza and Micucci are all playing characters consistent with their established screen personas – Brie as the entitled teacher’s pet, Plaza as the abrasive loner and Micucci as the oddball. While the three young women get most of the screen time, it falls to Reilly and Shannon to give the picture some heart. While both of their characters are also shown to defy our expectations of their positions, unlike the three nuns, we still believe in their inherent goodness. They are both sweet if flawed characters. Fred Armison as the visiting bishop and Nick Offerman as the cuckolded lord in pursuit of Massetto both make an impression in their brief scenes.
There are a number of genuine laughs in The Little Hours, but ultimately there are only a handful of areas it continues to return to for its humour – Massetto having to pretend he can’t hear or speak, the aggressive profanity and sexual aggression of the young nuns, Father Tommasso’s constant eagerness to have a drink – and each time we return to one of them the joke is a little less funny. At 90mins The Little Hours has a pretty sharp running time, but there isn’t the substance to warrant it being any longer.
Review by Duncan McLean
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