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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Review: The Little Hours (2017)

* * *

Director: Jeff Baena
Starring: Dave Franco, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza

The Little Hours is part Monty Python, part "Nunsploitation" throwback, and just as tonally all over the place as that description implies. Many scenes in The Little Hours are really very funny. A couple of scenes in The Little Hours become really weird and uncomfortable to watch for reasons that I'll get into below. The gentle, actually quite sweet ending is somewhat at odds with the bawdiness that dominates the proceedings up until that point. Nevertheless, because it's such a fun watch overall, the film is never really bogged down these sudden shifts. It helps that The Little Hours feels so fresh in comparison to most of the comedies being put out by Hollywood studios lately, doing its own off-the-wall thing and taking a few chances. It's a silly movie, but it's silly in the best of ways.

Based (loosely, I imagine) on Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, The Little Hours is the story of Massetto (Dave Franco), a servant in the Middle Ages who is found to be "servicing" the lady of the house and must flee the wrath of his master (Nick Offerman in a wig so terrible that it transcends awfulness to become awesome) if he wishes to live. During the course of his flight he crosses paths with Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), a goodhearted drunkard who offers to shelter him after hearing his plight and brings him back to his convent. In an effort to insulate Massetto from the nuns at the convent, who have driven away the previous groundskeeper, Tommasso tells everyone that he's a deaf-mute, but this does little to keep Massetto out of trouble. Instead, Massetto becomes an object of curiosity and lust by three of the nuns - Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Ginerva (Kate Micucci), and Alessandra (Alison Brie) - one of whom is sexually frustrated, one of whom is sexually confused, and one of whom is a witch who wants to use him in a ritualistic sex/murder. You know, nun stuff.

Though it maintains the time period and geographical setting of The Decameron, The Little Hours employs modern speech, milking a lot of humor out of the anachronism of characters living in 14th century Florence speaking in a dialect rife with modern slang and curse words - not to mention American accents. In one running gag (which somehow keeps getting funnier each time the film returns to it) Jemima Kirke shows up as a non-nun friend of Fernanda's and Giverva can't get past the fact that she speaks with a different accent even though she supposedly comes from the same place as all the rest of them. Later Fred Armisen will arrive on the scene as the Bishop whose discovery that the convent has become a den of sin leads to a hearing, which he conducts less like a brutal authoritarian and more like a middle-manager who is just baffled by the work ethic of his employees (Armisen's reading of the line, "Where am I?" after he's listed off the worst of the nuns' shenanigans makes me laugh every time I think about it). The Little Hours is a film full of funny people being funny in really simple ways which rely pretty much entirely on dialogue that sparks both because of what's said and how it's said, which is all the more impressive when you consider that all of the dialogue was improvised.

The Little Hours is predominantly a comedy and is probably meant to be entirely a comedy, but there are a couple of scenes that turn in a direction that makes the comedic tone fall away. Both are scenes of a sexual nature and both, for lack of a better way to describe them, get really... rapey. By any modern metric both are straight up rape scenes, one involving a knife being put to Massetto's throat to make him perform sexually, the other involving two characters getting another drunk in order to have their way with her sexually, but the film doesn't really treat them that way. In Massetto's case, after his initial terror passes he seems to enjoy himself, in the case of the other scene the incident becomes the catalyst for the character's sexual awakening. Both scenes are deeply uncomfortable to watch because the film seems to believe that they're part of the comedy even as they make a point of the discomfort of the character at the center of them. They don't play like comedy, they play like something much darker instead.

Those scenes aside, however, The Little Hours is a solidly put together comedy with plenty of laughs to its credit, unless you're a member of the Catholic Church, in which case you may not find it all that funny. It's a silly movie, but it's an artistically rich one in the way that it takes the source material and this bygone subgenre and style of filmmaking and repurposes them for a modern sensibility, and it's a film that is quick on its feet and doesn't overstay its welcome. You got 90 minutes and need a few laughs? Give The Little Hours a try.

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