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Review: The Little Hours (2017)

The Little Hours (2017)

Directed by: Jeff Baena

Premise: Adapted from stories in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Set in the Middle Ages, a young man (Dave Franco) takes a laborer position at an isolated convent. His presence leads the nuns to sexual distraction.

What Works: The Little Hours is an uneven picture but when it works the movie is very funny. The film has an odd mix of ancient and modern elements; the story is set in the Middle Ages but the characters speak and behave in a contemporary way and that mismatch creates some of the funniest bits in the film. The actors playing the clergy are very good. The primary characters are a trio of nuns played by Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza. The story picks up on a particular aspect of religious life in the Middle Ages; at this time women might end up in a convent not because they desired a life of servitude and spirituality but because they had nowhere else to go or their family could not afford a dowry. That’s the case of these three women, in particular Alison Brie’s character, and the film has a feminist angle in which it points out the absurdity of dictating a woman’s worth in this way. Aubrey Plaza co-stars as a particularly angry young nun and as usual Plaza excels at being mean; it is impressive how consistently Plaza is willing to make herself unlikable. Another nun played by Kate Micucci is the busybody of the convent and she best balances the comedy and the drama with a few real moments among her fellow nuns. The cast of The Little Hours also includes Molly Shannon as the Mother Superior of the convent and John C. Reilly as the local priest. Shannon and Reilly have an effective comic rapport that’s underutilized and the end of the picture has a hint of sweetness between them that could have been capitalized into a much better movie.

What Doesn’t: As is obvious from its premise, The Little Hours is a blasphemous and heretical film. This movie intends to provoke the audience by lampooning religious figures and ideas and it’s a hard-R comedy with lots of vulgar language and sexual content, much of it involving members of the clergy. Obviously, this film is not going to play for a religious audience. But viewers who aren’t religiously sensitive will find that The Little Hours does little more than retread the most obvious religious criticisms. Contrast The Little Hours with superior films like Sausage Party and Life of Brian, which also affronted religious ideas but had something interesting and intelligent to say about them. The Little Hours lack of ambition is evident in the film’s other missed opportunities. It invokes the erotic period pictures of the 1970s like Walerian Borowczyk’s Immoral Tales and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron. The influence of those pictures is most obvious in the sex scenes; they play earnestly—romantic even—in a way that is inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the film. As an adaption of The Decameron and a riff on the erotic films of the ’70s, The Little Hours hints of parody but the filmmakers don’t seem to have anything to say about the subjects that they are lampooning. The lack of an underlying rationale for The Little Hours is reflected in the film’s inconsistent comedy. It’s clear that the filmmakers don’t know what they are trying to ridicule and so the humor is scattershot. They overestimate the comic impact of foul mouthed nuns. There’s plenty in this film that is outrageous and offensive but that’s not the same as comedy; the average episode of South Park is funnier and more subversive. The movie also looks really cheap. The costumes appear to have been purchased from the clearance rack of Halloween shop and the film frequently has the look of an episode of Drunk History.

Bottom Line: The Little Hours is perfunctorily shocking, at least for a religiously conservative audience, but it’s only funny in fits and starts. The film has the talent and the source material to be more comical and more subversive than what is accomplished here.

Episode: #659 (August 6, 2017)