Movie Review: “The Little Hours,” with Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, and Molly Shannon
Aubrey Plaza may legitimately be an unhinged maniac, and you will love her for it in The Little Hours. An unapologetically raunchy, ridiculous comedy that has been the subject of protests, petitions, and the ire of the Catholic League, The Little Hours features Plaza at her most id. She yells at and spits on people, she seduces friends and strangers alike, she rolls her eyes when people criticize her absurdity. Plaza is the key to this crazy.
An adaptation of the 14th century Italian novella collection The Decameron, The Little Hours does everything in extremes: Nuns curse and fight; priests get drunk and break their vows; noblemen describe in grisly detail grotesque battle scenes. Practically everything here is meant to offend. If you can give yourself over to that intensity, you’ll be amused—survive the first five minutes and you’ll enjoy the remaining 85.
Set in the Garfagnana region of Italy in 1347, The Little Hours primarily focuses on three nuns serving in an isolated convent: Sisters Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Plaza), and Genevra (Kate Micucci), who have varying levels of friendliness with each other. Genevra is an uptight tattletale, but she trails in Fernanda’s shadow. Fernanda is apathetic and rude, but has an eye always on Alessandra. And Alessandra, the daughter of a merchant who sends money to the convent, gets out of manual labor like washing clothes and tending to animals, but is relied on to produce embroidery that Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) sell for extra funds.
The Sisters’ varying frustrations with each other and with convent life overall are intensified when Tommasso arrives back from a failed trip selling Alessandra’s fabrics with hired hand Massetto (Dave Franco), who the Father presents as a deaf-mute. But in reality, Massetto is a runaway from a nobleman, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), who captured the young man sleeping with his wife and who swore to kill him. To protect his identity and keep him safe, Tommasso encourages Massetto to lie—but his presence in the convent ratchets up the simmering tension already present.
Alessandra finds herself attracted to him—could they end up married? Fernanda thinks she can use him—will he respond to a love potion? And Genevra, rattled after a sexual encounter she didn’t expect, doesn’t understand why Alessandra and Fernanda are both acting so weird—what about Massetto could possibly be so interesting?
The Little Hours feels like an elongated skit (which makes sense, since the original story was in a novella format), and that scant story both works for and against it. On the one hand, the lack of narrative gives Plaza, Brie, and Micucci room to be bizarre, petty, and vengeful, and the simple juxtaposition of their conservative nun habits and raunchy, modern language is consistently funny. Their tirades are often uncomfortable and inappropriate (“Hoarding all the food, huh, like a fucking Jew!” yells Alessandra at the farmer who grows vegetables for the convent), and Franco does a good job being constantly aghast at what these “nice”-looking girls say and do.
But on the other hand, the second half of the movie becomes so sex-filled that the humor takes a backseat, and the script only digs into droll vulgarity again when the Sisters are brought before Fred Armisen’s Bishop Bartolomeo to discuss their sins. Watching Plaza apathetically add “just the tone of my voice” to her list of wrongdoings is perfectly in character, but it comes after about 15 minutes of Franco-centered makeouts and not enough jokes.
The Little Hours obviously doesn’t have wide appeal, but the film is strongest when it really pushes forward its agenda of aggressive, irreverent comedy. The pansexual revelry is certainly part of that, but it’s never as funny as when Plaza, in her first moment of astonishingly anachronistic behavior, yells at a man gently greeting them, “Hey, don’t fucking talk to us! Get the fuck out of here!” That casual, self-possessed crudeness is the best part of The Little Hours, irrespective of the film’s barely there plot.