Mark Reviews Movies

The Little Hours


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jeff Baena

Cast: 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, Jon Gabrus, Paul Weitz

MPAA Rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual content and language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 6/30/17 (limited); 7/14/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 13, 2017

As an exercise in comic improvisation, The Little Hours is some kind of accomplishment. It has a story that flows for the most part, jokes that run and are built upon, and characters that are pretty sturdy in their personalities. Most of the movie was clearly improvised by its cast, despite a screenplay credited to director Jeff Baena. The signs are there in the dialogue: the pauses, the signals of an actor presenting an idea and another actor accepting it, and the sometimes lengthy riffing on a certain theme, whether the story requires it or not.

It's easy to admire the efforts of the cast here. It's much harder to admire the result.

For here is a pretty obvious, ultimately hollow satire of religious life and the lives of the religious, set in a remote convent in Italy during the 14th century, where no one cares for anything religious. The nuns curse, belittle each other, threaten violence, act out on those threats, engage in a few sex acts with men and women alike, and, ultimately, find themselves at the center of a coven of witches in the middle of the woods—which is, at least, kind of religious in a certain way.

The priest is a drunk who justifies his nightly indulgence in the sacramental wine because, after all, he blessed it. A visiting bishop seems more concerned with doling out punishment than in teaching some kind of moral lesson, and he's more offended by an eye-roll aimed at him than by the list of sins that have happened at the convent. The only person of virtue at this place is so old and feeble—of body and mind—that she doesn't even notice one of the nuns seducing the convent's servant when she walks in on them in the act. It's hard to call that virtue, but by comparison, she's a saint.

The central theme, though, isn't really about hypocrisy, which would seem the obvious target. For that, the characters would need to be saying one thing and doing another. No one at the convent appears to want to be there in the first place. Their words match their actions.

Alessandra (Alison Brie), one of the nuns, would rather be married. Her father (played by Paul Reiser) would prefer to donate some money to the convent to keep his daughter there than to spend a significant sum as a dowry for her marriage. The other nuns include Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), the most profane and violent of them, and Genevra (Kate Micucci), who's more devoted to tattling than she is to any religious dogma. Sister Marea (Molly Shannon), the abbess, seems disinterested in everything, except for Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), the resident priest.

The minimal plot (from a story in Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron) involves the introduction of Massetto (Dave Franco) to the community. He was once a servant of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), a nobleman who sees a Florentine conspiracy in everything, until the master caught Massetto in a passionate embrace with the lady of the castle (played by Lauren Weedman). Bruno just missed the stuff that happened in her chambers before that.

While on the run, Massetto comes across Father Tommasso. Learning that the young man has no place to stay, the priest invites Massetto to work at the convent, suggesting that he pretends to be deaf and mute to avoid any harassment from the nuns.

The ruse doesn't help, obviously. After all, Alessandra wants a man. Fernanda, aided by a foreigner named Marta (Jemima Kirke), wants a target for her increasingly heathenistic abuse. Desperately wanting be a part of the in-crowd, Genevra tries behaving just as sinfully as the other two.

The main joke, it seems, is the juxtaposition of the movie's period setting with the anachronism of the performances from the cast. Save for Kirke (who does something like a German accent), none of the actors even attempts a dialect, although Fred Armisen, who shows up in the third act as the frustrated bishop, does do one of his funny voices. The language shifts from modern parlance to certain words and phrases that sound more appropriate for the period. That gimmick is occasionally amusing, such as during a scene in which Massetto, confessing his sins to the priest, goes on for a while about "spilling seed" on various parts of the body of the wife of his former master.

Many of these scenes go on for a while, and that's another surefire sign that the actors are working with a minimal net here. The issue is that they don't have to do much, except to sporadically sound as if they're speaking the vernacular of another era and to come up with a few jokes every so often. This means the movie's pleasures aren't in the gags. They're in the moments when we can see the actors coming to an agreement about the direction of a scene, throwing aside any uncertainty, and proceeding headlong through it.

There's simply nothing of significance driving this experiment to call it anything more than an experiment. The Little Hours is all surface, that surface is rough and full of enough holes to expose the hollowness beneath.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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