Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.
A deaf-mute walks into a convent — it sounds like the beginning of a bad dad joke. Instead, it is the premise of a movie more humorous and inappropriate than anything your father might ever utter. Within the first few minutes of the film, a crew of medieval nuns swear, scream, hit and physically assault just about every common villager who looks their way. Set at a convent in medieval Europe, “The Little Hours” and its all-star comedy cast, though campy at times, provides enough humor to knock you out of your chair, all while maintaining the heart at its deep, vulgar core.
Based loosely on Giovanni Boccaccio’s sex-driven comedy, “The Decameron,” writer/director Jeff Baena recreates one of the Italian novellas from the collection, with a heavy-handed, modern and irreverent touch. “The Little Hours” could have taken place today, but for a few knights, a donkey-pulled carriage and the lack of electricity. Strangely enough, this out-of-time quality is not off-putting — instead, it sets the stage perfectly for its leading ladies. No longer are these nuns wise and innocent, they are now rude and horribly sheltered, with devilish curiosity and raging hormones.
The story follows Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), the trouble-making ringleader with a taste for all things dangerous, Geneva (Kate Micucci) a sexually inexperienced gossiper longing for excitement and Alessandra (Alison Brie), a beautiful seamstress given to the church by her wealthy family as a gesture of good faith, who longs for romance but is instead sentenced to a life of celibacy and embroidery. Together these three wreak havoc on those surrounding their convent, until the arrival of medieval soldier turned handy-man Massetto (Dave Franco) escalates their schemes and antics to a whole new level.
Plaza steals the show, finally breaking into the big screen in a film that suits her talents. Her blank stare and flat line delivery plays perfectly with the endless stream of F-bombs leaving her mouth. This, along with her nun’s habit and the calm serene backdrop of the convent create such cognitive confusion that laughing is the only reasonable escape.
Yet Plaza is only one of many big-name comedy actors packed into this short flick. There’s Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) as an ill-tempered, violent cuckold, Jemima Kirke (“Girls”) as resident rebel and improvised sexual education instructor, John C. Reilly as the convent’s drunk father and Molly Shannon as the convent’s mother. Even Fred Armisen has a cameo as the appalled visiting county bishop.
Sadly, much of this impressive talent gets wasted or skimped on (particularly Kirke and Shannon), a function of the film’s relatively short runtime.
The plot itself is flimsy and rambling — often becoming a farcical mess — but what it lacks in stability it makes up for in humor. Often feeling like an elongated “Saturday Night Live” skit, the actors’ skilled improvisational delivery provides ab workout-level laughs. Though the ending, like most of the plot, is rushed and convoluted, the real conclusion comes from the interplay between characters and their climatic cruel war of debauchery.
It’s not going on a list for best comedies ever, but “The Little Hours” is an entertaining hour-and-a-half showcase of spectacular comedy performances and well-written dialogue. Baena has created a medieval farce with a “Canterbury Tales” feel that will finally do well on the big screen. Though terribly irreverent, vulgar, and farcical, it’s warm-hearted ending leaves even the most judgmental and sacrilegious characters with a shot at happiness — or at least a path to it. If nothing else, “The Little Hours” finally provides one perspective on what really happens when nuns remove their habits and let their hair down.