The Little Hours Review
The Little Hours (2017) Film Review, a movie directed by Jeff Baena, and starring Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Lauren Weedman, Paul Reiser, Adam Pally, Paul Weitz, Jon Gabrus, and Rolando Abbrachi.
When you really think about it, there aren’t that many comedies about the middle ages. I mean, sure there are movies that are set in medieval times and meant to make you laugh, but not many spring to mind when discussing the comedy genre as a whole. This is probably due to the wide, silly shadow cast over the subgenre by Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the definitive comedic take on the era to say nothing of one of the funniest films of all time. One can look no further than the response to Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, a female-led farce about the pandemonium that ensues when a hunky runaway servant seeks refuge at a convent of unusually frisky nuns, to see the lingering influence of Holy Grail, with any number of observers invariably comparing Baena’s quirky little film to the Python movie.
While it was inevitable given the medieval setting and the naughtily revisionist approach it takes to said setting, the movie’s comedic sensibilities seem to owe just as much, if not more, to an unlikely influence: Jared Hess’ cult classic anti-comedy Napoleon Dynamite. It’s a strange comparison to swallow at first, but the humor, derived as it is from the quaint conversations and inappropriate interactions the characters have and the ticklishly transgressive awkwardness that follows, more closely resembles the quiet cringe of Napoleon than the madcap antics of Monty Python.
This isn’t to say Hours is without its amusingly absurd moments: how else would you describe prison guards being distracted by nothing more than a turtle with a candle on its back or Alison Brie calling some poor soul a “f***ing imbecile” as she leads a coterie of angry nuns in a charge against him? It’s simply that the more subdued features counterbalance any outlandish elements the film has.
Predictably, the convent setting have caused many to assume that the film is a sacrilegious satire of Catholicism, with offense-seeking activists from several Catholic groups launching loud but marginal campaigns to protest the movie and get it pulled from distribution. Ironically enough, their outrage is sorely misplaced as the film sidesteps the religious dimension of its story and setting almost entirely, being more interested with the day to day life, wants, and activities of its protagonists. The more stubborn among the offensemongers might claim that the plentiful sex scenes between the nuns and the runaway Massetto (Dave Franco) is disrespectful to the Catholic Church, but this claim ignores the story, as Baena has gone to great lengths to point out, the film is based on comes from The Decameron, a 14th century collection of erotic tales based on actual accounts from nunneries.
Not only that, but the theme seems to operate within the framework of faith rather than against it. The characters all succumb to temptation, but appear genuinely apologetic when they’re reprimanded for their behavior. Even the most rebellious of the nuns, the wistfully willful Alessandra (Brie) and the closeted witch Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) repent for their indiscretions and remain in the fold. Sure, they lapse right back into their rascally ways, but what could be more quintessentially Catholic than asking and receiving forgiveness for something that you plan on doing again?
Although the performances are all very funny, Kate Micucci’s is the only one that gets a story arc you can trace over the course of the film. A worrisome busybody, Micucci’s Genevra spends her time in the convent confronting her sisters for engaging in proscribed behaviors and thoughts and ratting them out to Molly Shannon’s laid-back mother superior. As the convent descends into sin however, Genevra ends up the one most intoxicated by the debauchery around her, running around naked whilst high on a belladonna concoction she brewed to seduce Massetto. It’s a humorously logical evolution, and one that Micucci commits wholly to. Innocent and inquisitorial for much of the movie, her character’s transmogrification into a pleasure-crazed banshee is probably the comedic and narrative high point of the film as well as possibly Micucci’s long-awaited breakout performance.
Unfortunately for the other characters, none of them really get the kind of development that Genevra does. Brie and Plaza both, while turning in serviceable performances, end as roughly the same people they were at the start of the film and Franco is essentially here to drive the plot and, on a more tangible level, give the female leads something to have fun with. As I mentioned before though, everybody’s frightfully funny, with even the side characters getting in some good lines.
Nick Offerman is particularly hilarious as an insufferably paranoid nobleman, who regales his disinterested wife (Lauren Weedman) and Massetto with long-winded, often graphic harangues about his various conquests and the alleged myriad of conspiracies against him in a vainglorious twist on his trademark deadpan, and Fred Armsien arrives late in the film as a bishop who tries – unsuccessfully – to rein in the insanity only to end up the source of side-splittingly puzzled reactions to the rest of the cast’s excesses.
A good deal of Hours’ eccentric charm and irreverent tone derives from its soundtrack, the mischievous nature and a cappella-style vocals of which call to mind The Swingle Singers or the later Crash Bandicoot video games. The part feels greater than the sum however when the leads escape into the night with Massetto in tow and the film ends, with the camera titling up to a starlit sky as the score ascends and the voices of the singers’ rise. It’s an emotional moment that the movie doesn’t quite earn, but it’s an unexpectedly moving sight to see this simple union of music and imagery cap off the preceding madness no less.
Too lucid at times to be Monty Python and the Holy Grail and too outrageous at others to be Napoleon Dynamite, The Little Hours lands somewhere in the middle and gives us an offbeat comedy that does what many studio films try and fail to do: make the viewer laugh. It’s not going to change the way you think, if you do at all, about monastic life in the middle ages, but it’ll certainly make you bust a gut about it, and how many other movies are there you can say the same thing of?
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