I must confess that I found myself at various points during The Little Hours contemplating a dreadful miss of a film, that godawful Stone Age set comic misfire Year One, Harold Ramis's $60 million faux historical meets faux biblical flick in which poor production values were met by even poorer performances from an ensemble cast that seemed clueless about what was actually going on.
This is not the case in The Little Hours, a loose, and I mean very loose, adaptation based primarily on the first tale of the third day from The Decameron written for the screen by writer/director Jeff Baena (co-writer of I Heart Huckabees) and brought to life by an ensemble cast filled to the brim with contemporary cinema's most gifted purveyors of substantial comedy with intellectual heft.
Lest you think everything is all prim and proper in The Little Hours, the always dependable Aubrey Plaza shatters such a notion right away with an expletive-laden spewing forth directed toward Lurco (Paul Weitz), the kindly gardener for the Tuscan monastery where Plaza's Fernanda represses her days away alongside Genevra (Kate Micucci), Alessandra (Alison Brie), Sister Marea (Molly Shannon), and the sincere yet always slightly inebriated Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly).
While one could be forgiven for expecting The Little Hours to be nothing more than a period appropriate campy comicfest, Baena's always been a more intelligent writer than that and The Little Hours, especially in the hands of such a fine cast, is actually a rather astute observation takedown of oppressive institutional structures that feels as relevant today as it was in the 14th century.
The Little Hours exists somewhere in a tiny village between the disciplined, irreverent spirit of Monty Python's Life of Brian, the unabashed bawdiness and naughtiness of Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, and the twisty wordishness of the best of Mel Brooks. Yet, there's also something remarkably unique that radiates throughout The Little Hours, an underlying intellectualism that permeates every pronounced "fuck you" and an underlying, almost unidentified feeling of longing that serves as a foundation for this little, deceptive comic wonder.
In the film, Lurco tires of abuse rendered by his seemingly spiritual superiors and leaves the monastery, already suffering from a rustic romanticism best described as disrepair, devoid of a gardener/laborer. Not far away, young Massetto (Dave Franco) is barely escaping from the estate of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) where the Lord's wife Francesca (Lauren Weedman) has been deliciously using him as her sex toy. When a traveling Father Tommasso stumbles across the escaping Massetto, the stage is set for a twist-o-rama of sex farce meets social satire the likes of which you're unlikely to see again anytime soon.
Opening in limited release this Independence Day weekend, more than a little winkish itself considering much of the film deals with the subjugation of women, The Little Hours will open in Indianapolis on July 14th. While the film's quirky and intentional irreverence won't resonate with everyone, the Catholic League has referred to the film as "pure trash," those with an open mind and seeking a different sort of cinematic experience are likely to be practically giddy throughout the film's nicely paced 90-minute running time.
Massetto, instructed to act as a deaf mute so as not to antagonize or attract the easily triggered, in more ways than one, sisters. Of course, nothing goes quite as planned as Baena's tour-de-farce makes it abundantly clear that life in these monasteries was never quite what it seemed, an undeniable truth brought hilariously to life here. The bewitching Fernanda is determinedly seductive by any means necessary, while both Genevra and Alessandra find themselves irresistibly drawn to this mysterious mute.
While the leading trio in The Little Hours are perfectly fine, the film may very well shine most brightly through its bit players. Lauren Weedman, who also appeared in Baena's Joshy, is an absolute gem in a relatively brief appearance as Lady Francesca, whose hilariously philandering ways are particularly Pythonesque and whose presence even now makes me giggle as I write these words. The same is largely true for the delightful Fred Armisen as Bishop Bartolomeo, whose reverent irreverence is magnified by spot-on perfect facial expressions and body language that makes you realize he understands exactly what's going on here. The flawless Nick Offerman is a comic wonder as Lord Bruno, while both John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon again remind us that they are among contemporary cinema's most gifted performers when it comes to dramatically grounded comedy.
The original music by Dan Romer is a period appropriate mood setter, while Quyen Tran's lensing perfectly capitalizes upon the film's pristine Tuscan setting and fluctuating tones. Susie Mancini's production design drives home the fact that Baena's intentional yet spontaneous approach to collaborative filmmaking doesn't minimize the value of top notch production values.
The Little Hours is a comic gem of a film that, much like the material upon which it is based, celebrates human sexuality and expression despite the structures that seek to squelch such expression. With hints of sweetness and humanity amidst its extraordinarily twisted sensibility, The Little Hours has a boldness all too rare in studio-driven comedies that hit the multiplexes these days.
Just be prepared to go to confession afterwards.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic