You know you’re in for a good time when a trio of nuns turn to the genial farmer who greets them one morning with the retort, “Don’t fucking talk to us!” That’s the underlying charm of “The Little Hours,” in which every joke stems from people talking the last way you’d expect of them. Matching a crackling wit with the absurd dissonance of time and place found in the best of Monty Python and Mel Brooks, “Little Hours” is so eager to please that its one-note humor lands with ease.
Writer-director Jeff Baena’s improv-laden twist on “The Decameron,” in which wily 13th-century nuns speak in raunchy contemporary dialogue and engage in sexual deviance, milks its premise for as many jokes as possible and then keeps going, with uneven but mostly hilarious results. Overall, it’s a perfectly satisfying snapshot of subversive comedy that delivers where it counts.
Set in and around a medieval convent, “The Little Hours” focuses on nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginerva (Kate Micucci), who spend their days jockeying for attention from their elder Sister Marea (a lighthearted Molly Shannon) while whining to the bumbling Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). Their world is further complicated with the arrival of hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), whom Father Tommasso rescues from lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), hellbent on capturing the handsome young man after he sleeps with the lord’s wife (a sarcastic Lauren Weedman).
The situation comedy keeps piling up: Father Tommasso bonds with his new hire over late-night sacrificial wine, while requiring him to pretend he’s deaf-mute in the presence of others. Meanwhile, the nuns explore their sexual freedoms after dark and eventually turn a baffled Massetto into the object of their developing lust. The meandering vignette approach to the storytelling fits well with the simple plot, especially because Baena’s game cast seems to be having so much fun with the material.
That said, your mileage will vary on this one, and the goofy approach inevitably runs out of steam. Baena’s third feature isn’t as wildly unpredictable and idiosyncratic as his zombie romance “Life After Beth,” but it’s a more polished comedic experiment than his restrained buddy movie “Joshy,” which showed the limitations of the improvisational approach much as “The Little Hours” crystallizes its appeal. In only a handful of scenes as the dyspeptic lord, Offerman deadpans conspiracy theories about invading Florentines over a meal of pheasant while his wife rolls her eyes, which is basically candy to Offerman fans and just kind of odd to everyone else.
“The Little Hours” largely excels at showcasing its young female leads, though Franco is well-suited as the straight man tasked with playing off the boisterous women who try to take advantage of him. Brie plays the most traditional role of the trio, but she’s strikingly credible as a nun conflicted about her duties, while Plaza’s typically sardonic delivery is ideal for the movie’s ironic tone. But it’s the petite, wide-eyed Micucci who stands out as a reliable source of absurd slapstick,; her zany outbursts about her desires have an elevated cartoonishness that anchors many of her scenes.
“Little Hours” doesn’t extend its material much beyond the jokiness established early on, and when Fred Armisen surfaces as a judgmental bishop who drops in on the troubled convent, it’s a reminder that this movie largely exists as a platform for talented comedic actors to clown around. The loopy plot stumbles through clandestine romances and double-crossings, but the real draw is the individual scenes in which actors play off each other. (Don’t miss the bit when a drunken Reilly takes confession from Franco about his sins, which turns into a guffaw-worthy discussion of what defines sodomy.)
Reilly’s presence also conjures up memories of Matteo Garrone’s violent fairy-tale update “Tale of Tales,” with which Baena’s movie shares some DNA. Both are playful, deranged twists on classic literary settings that match their energetic humor with top-notch production values. While not every gag lands, it helps that the scenery looks the part. Quyen Tran’s painterly cinematography creates a consistent world, which makes it all the more entertaining that nobody quite fits in it.
“The Little Hours” starts to drag in its third act, when some of the physical comedy fails to impress and a few too many twists pile up, as if Baena and company were overflowing with ideas and ran short on time to get them across. But it does manage to deliver on the promise of an escapist fantasy, in which giddy personalities struggle under the restrictions of their religious world, and only manage to find a way forward by giving it the finger.
“Little Hours” premiered in the U.S. Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.