I like Jeff Baena. He’s known primarily in my house for co-writing I Heart Huckabees, and I enjoyed Life After Beth even if I haven’t thought about it since its release back in 2014. He knows how to turn high concepts into wacky comedies, which is a huge plus for me. His latest feature, The Little Hours, is indeed pretty wacky and very funny. That makes up for a lot, considering the simple but sloppy plot machinations that drag the film down at every turn. But then, basing your film on The Decameron (as Woody Allen recently learned) can lead to mixed results, so Baena is wise to stick to a single story here rather than pad out the running time. They can’t all be Pasolini, after all.
Set in 14th-century Italy, a trio of young nuns (Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Kate Micucci) lead lives of poverty and servitude, if not ones of chastity or holy devotion. These aren’t women of the cloth by choice, but of circumstance, and the convent setting plays more like a boarding school for “troubled young women” than anything else. The film gets some good comedic mileage out of portraying the boredom and outbursts that might spring up from holding these energetic ladies back from the world. Profanity, drinking, violence, lesbianism, witchcraft and sex magick are just part of everyday life for these sisters. Some things never change.
The cast of comedy ringers helps tremendously. Nick Offerman, as medieval conspiracy theory-spouting Lord Bruno, does great work with limited screen time. As heads of the convent, John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon play the farce aspect of the story totally straight (they’re cast not against type, but to perfection). And Fred Armisen, whom I’ve loathed for exactly as long as he’s been a household name, finally tones it down a bit as the Head Bishop on a surprise visit to the convent, playing the role as if he were an auditor sent down from corporate to suss out just what exactly is going on down here.
Dave Franco, as the servant caught carrying on with Bruno’s wife, is perfectly fine here. Taken in by Reilly’s Head Priest while on the run from his former employer, he hides out as a deaf mute so as not to attract attention. He does, however, catch the eyes of Sisters Plaza, Brie and Micucci, who use him for their own individual sexual ends. While this serves as the main story, the truth is the film works better if taken as a series of linked comedic set pieces. Something is always happening, but it’s essentially plotless, preferring instead to use the momentum of its considerable cast (and improvised dialogue) to drive the movie forward. Where the film fails itself is in trying to become bigger than it is at the last minute, throwing too many disparate threads up in the air and hoping they land. They don’t. But for this style of comedy, being funny is enough.