The Little Hours (2017) by Jeff Baena
Review by Andrew Swafford
Featuring a Middle English pun for a title (think about it), The Little Hours is an unlikely farcical adaptation of The Decameron, an already farcical 14th century epic of Italian short stories that ended up inspiring Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The film version stars so many current comedy talents that it feels like a weekend project among friends: Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Micucci star as as young nuns dragging their feet through daily life at a convent run by John C. Reilly’s priest character and Molly Shannon’s mother superior. However, excitement soon arrives in the form of Dave Franco, who is a serf on the lam from the vengeful landowner Nick Offerman, whose wife Franco has just been caught sleeping with. Franco pretends to be a deaf-mute to protect his wanted identity and unwittingly becomes the epicenter of the young nuns' repressed desires. All of this plays out in modern vernacular and with plenty of swearing, of course, as advertised.
The Little Hours has a weird place in the modern film-comedy landscape: on the one hand, it’s an effort fronted by stars we all know, it relies heavily on their familiar faces and ensemble chemistry, and much of its initial humor comes from the usual vulgarities that we’ve become accustomed to; but on the other hand, it is entirely unique in the mainstream comedy world and it’s committed to its uniqueness, both in premise and how it goes about getting laughs. The relationship between the film’s present-day existence and its centuries-old setting was consistently hilarious to me on seemingly every level.
The title is funny. The credits font is funny, with it’s gothic off-yellow typeface that belongs to a bygone era. Even the score is funny, with it’s mad period-specific vocalizations intruding upon otherwise uneventful montage sequences. And the often-obligatory power of actor recognition is made hysterically necessary here. For example: Dave Franco, like his Neighbor’s co-star Zac Efron, is an almost comically handsome American boy-next-door, and he makes absolutely no sense as a deaf-mute in Medieval Italy. But in The Little Hours, that makes just looking at Franco’s face a joke unto itself. His status as a feigned-deaf-mute makes for some excellent visual comedy as well, as Franco embraces slipshod pantomime in a way that might have made Chaplin’s Tramp giggle with pride.
The biggest audience take-away from The Little Hours will be, of course, the overarching premise and the cleverness of the writing/acting. Whereas other modern comedies tend to center around dysfunctional but recognizable families/friendships/romances, this has an unusually outlandish premise of imbuing 14th century Italian literature with modern-day vernacular. And while hearing nuns say “fuck” is pretty funny, it’s even funnier to hear them say “totally” or to see them roll their eyes or to hear them drunkenly sing instrumental Medieval arias in unison like Rihanna anthems.
Monty Python’s anachronistic absurdity is definitely a reference point here, but I think a more interesting comparison might be to Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. In a film about a young woman driven to witchcraft and murder over her obsession with beauty and love, Biller revels in garrish set design and costuming from 1960s/1970s pulp-romance and B-horror, but she crucially litters the background with modern cars and gives her characters smartphones to completely throw off your sense of place and encouraging the audience to transfer her commentary on antiquated gender roles onto today’s world. As Violet Lucca said of that film on a recent FilmComment podcast, “Instead of a starvation diet, you [now] do a juice cleanse; instead of realizing there are a dearth of health options for women, you go into wellness, you get the moon dust shit. And I think [there's a common] misunderstanding [of this movie], thinking, ‘oh, this is supposed to be back in the day...she’s doing this kooky thing back in the day...’ No! This movie was set in 2016.”
I think the same thematic calculus can be applied to The Little Hours, which focuses less on gender roles (though that is definitely there) and more on the role of the church and dogma in people’s personal lives. With the exception of a bishop played by Fred Armisen, who whips the church into shape after chaos breaks out, every character in this film is a heathen--yet at nearly every moment, they are representing the church.
John C. Reilly’s priest gets drunk on communion wine (after blessing it, of course) and is sleeping with Molly Shannon’s mother superior. Kate Micucci gets drunk on the same communion wine and sleeps with fellow-nun Aubrey Plaza, who tragically doesn’t reciprocate her romantic feelings the morning after. Alison Brie’s father is propping up her convent financially despite being bankrupt--not because of his faith (which is played as beside-the-point entirely), but because it is what one must do to keep up appearances. And, symbolically, Aubrey Plaza’s character wears her nun’s habit to a “Satanic” celebration of witchcraft in the woods. Satan isn’t real in the world of The Little Hours, however--he’s just an nominal excuse for the societally repressed to get naked and act wild with no consequences (and a Satanic “love potion” must be administered to a man by rubbing his penis briefly and then walking away, which seems legit).
This is a raunchy sex comedy where the raunchiness has a purpose--all of its characters are obsessed with seeking pleasures denied to them by ancient texts they either can’t read or don’t understand, ultimately finding happiness through either abandoning the church or faking their devotion to it. With this undercurrent in mind, the 21st century vernacular feels less like an anachronism and more like a hint. (The American South leads the country in the consumption of gay porn, by the way.) It also just makes me appreciate how accessible to a modern audience the stories of the past can be: my high-school English students always expect Chaucer to be dusty and uninteresting, but I tell you what...the hot-poker-up-the-ass ending of "The Miller's Tale" always feels fresh.
I won't say this is for everyone, as The Little Hours is bound to be divisive. I’ve heard reviews all across the spectrum: from those praising it as one of the year’s funniest films, to those calling it an admirable mess, to those saying it starts with promise but wears out its gimmick early, to those dismissing the whole thing outright as obnoxiously unfunny. Even while watching (and laughing...a lot), I thought to myself: “This is either great or terrible.” In hindsight, I’m still not sure--but I also don’t particularly care. The Little Hours is one of the most uniquely funny films I’ve seen in a long time, and we need more high-concept, tightly scripted, esoteric comedies like it so that we’ll stop being satisfied with the same old thing.