The Little Hours begins by introducing viewers to three nuns, each tending to their daily chores at a convent in 14th-century Italy. As Alessandra (Alison Brie), Genevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) work, a local villager walks by pushing a wagon. “Beautiful morning, sisters,” he says. “Hey! Don’t fucking talk to us!” Fernanda yells back. “Fucking creep! Get the fuck out of here!” she adds, as the townsperson flees. This is a subtle sort of humor, one the viewer might not pick up on instantly. See, the supposedly chaste nuns of the Middle Ages are, in fact, talking like foul-mouthed, grumpy teenagers from 2017.
If you like that gag, then get ready, because The Little Hours mostly coasts on others like it for 90 minutes. In theaters Friday, the film juxtaposes its cast of alt-comedy legends with a tale straight from The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s series of erotic, comedic, and tragic novellas published in 1353. In addition to Brie, Micucci, and Plaza, the writer-director Jeff Baena has assembled stars like Fred Armisen, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Dave Franco, Jemima Kirke, and Paul Reiser for this jaunt through temptation and blasphemy that quickly gets grating, but then doubles back around and becomes oddly charming by the end of its heroines’ strange, emotional journey.
Baena, who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell in 2004, is part of a new wave of small-scale comedy directors who particularly enjoy blurring the lines of genre. Baena’s directorial debut Life After Beth (also starring Plaza) was a zombie-comedy about a boy struggling to get over his girlfriend’s death after she reanimates as a flesh-eating corpse. Though it impressively committed to the grossness of Beth’s resurrection, the movie relied not on actual jokes but on its premise (a rom-com zombie flick, which was already better executed in Shaun of the Dead) to earn laughs. Baena’s follow-up, the dark bachelor-party film Joshy, was more straightforwardly dramatic, and better off for it.
The Little Hours exists more in the mold of Life After Beth, but it’s an experiment that works a lot better. The Decameron might be a dusty old masterpiece of Florentine prose, but it was also extremely bawdy for its time, with tales of misplaced lust, confused lovers, and inflamed passions, many of them revolving around religious settings. The Little Hours is specifically an adaptation of the first tale of the third day, about a gardener, Massetto (Franco), who escapes his drunken master (Offerman) and pretends to be mute to get a job at the local convent. Quickly enough, the bored nuns descend upon him, and many a love triangle ensues.
Each of the three leads is broadly confined to her usual comedic wheelhouse. As Fernanda, Plaza is cruel and sardonic, rebellious, and secretly at the heart of a witchy cult within the convent. Brie’s Alessandra is a rich kid: very type-A, slightly more rational, and torn over her lust for Massetto. The elfin Genevra (Micucci, easily the funniest part of the movie) is racked with guilt over her own repressed homosexuality and quickly spirals into intense mania. Since the film’s presentation is so heightened, with every actor using an American accent, The Little Hours works best when embracing its utter seriousness. Of the supporting cast, John C. Reilly stands out as a weary priest, with Armisen bringing his Saturday Night Live schoolmarm act to his performance as the local bishop.
The film is not quite Monty Python, but it does kick into an enjoyably high gear for its third act, as all of the sexual shenanigans and black magic build to some hilarious carnage. The movie never stopped feeling gimmicky for me, though I understand why The Little Hours wouldn’t work as a six-minute sketch. The success of the joke depends on the feature-length commitment—it’s almost impressive to see how Baena lays out and sticks to the weird rules of the film (the dialogue vs. the specificity of the period setting). For all the silliness, there’s something lovable about Fernanda, Alessandra, and Genevra by the end of their profane rampage, and that’s enough of a feat to make The Little Hours genuinely watchable.