Little Hours, TheReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/25/17 14:20:56
SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2017: I might not have known I needed a movie about foul-mouthed nuns and the hunk hiding in their convent as a deaf-mute before seeing "The Little Hours", but I did, especially at the end of a day of serious documentaries about societal inequity. This movie is tremendously funny, but also has a weirdly sweet core under the sarcastic exterior.Based (perhaps loosely) on a tale from The Decameron, it opens with three young women living in a convent near Lamporecchio - caustic Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) tends to shirk her chores and is the one most likely to snap at the handyman if she even thinks he is looking at her; Genevra (Kate Micucci) is eager to please, whether it be by following Fernanda like a puppy or tattling to the more senior Sisters; and Alessandra (Alison Brie) figures she's only there temporarily because her merchant father (Paul Reiser) has not yet matched her with a proper suitor. Meanwhile, in town, Lady Francesca (Lauren Weedman) has gotten flagrant enough in her dalliance with guard Massetto (Dave Franco) that Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) orders the young man put to death. Massetto escapes and encounters Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) on the road, and after Massetto does him a good turn, offers him the handyman's job, having him pose as a deaf-mute so that the nuns will not see him as a temptation. This, obviously, overestimates just how pious and dedicated to celibacy a group of women pushed out of sight by men who don't know what do with them are.
There's a certain delight in how writer/director Jeff Baena has his film set up expectations and defy them without ever actually seeming like a spoof - as much as the really beautiful shots of parts of Italy that may not be particularly changed since the film's medieval setting and simple, humble costumes may get put the audience in the mind of a certain sort of art-house picture until Fernanda starts violently berating the help on just who he thinks he is ogling the f---ing brides of Jesus Christ, that's on the viewer - he's primarily just making a raunchy comedy with a specific setting, even if he is willing to get a bit of an extra jolt by doing things contrary to the usual. So, without being anachronistic, he has the cast speak in colloquial-but-not-anachronistic American English as comes natural to them, with the one character speaking with a British accent (as Americans often do in period pieces) attacked as a foreigner despite her claims to the contrary. Baena is translating what is going on to its modern equivalents and letting the cast communicate, not trying to approximate something else that obscures how the characters would understand each other.
Most in the audience should get acclimated to this pretty quickly, and when they do, they've got a broad, enjoyably raunchy comedy on their hands. Baena starts out with odd, often kind of mean-spirited material, but he's got an impressive ability to find even more peculiar places to go, and never misses a chance to do a hard turn into something that reminds the audience how cruel and judgmental this part of history could be the second a viewer might start to romanticize it. It escapes being simply cruel by having characters often react in deadpan fashion and show a little ability to push back, letting the audience laugh not just at their despair but at how they handle absurdity with wit of their own. Baena also has a good knack for quickly throwing something with the opposite tone in, whether it's a tormented handyman practically apologizing for pointing out that Fenanda, Genevra, and Alessandra are not good people or the genuine quiet amazement people have for something a bit out of the ordinary.
He's also got a great, terrifically funny cast at his disposal. Aubrey Plaza's skill at sharp, rapid banter is heightened by how Kate MIcucci never quite ping-pongs back in the expected way until it's time for them to team up against Alison Brie's Alessandra, and all three of them do a fantastic job of jumping from self-pity to aggressive at the drop of a hat. It's a fun contrast to Dave Franco, who does excellent panic and half-resigned desperation no matter who he is paired with. There are a good half-dozen people turning in good work in smaller roles, from Nick Offerman's dryly monstrous lord to a late-arriving Fred Armisen to Molly Shannon's senior nun who makes no secret of her attraction for Father Tommasso.
And while John C.Riley's Tommasso isn't always the grounded, kind heart of the movie, he's got the best "what's a guy to do?" shrug toward the end, and it's Baena's ability to build his movie around casual cruelty and unfairness without consigning his characters to be consigned to simple victimhood that keeps the film drawing laughs through the finish. By current standards, the world these people live in is often insane and harsh, and the characters are not always better than that, but their desires are often simple enough and articulated with an understated wistfulness by the entire cast that there's at least the possibility of happiness without undercutting the anarchic, darkly funny material that makes the story work.After all, not everyone really gets into the sort of comedy Baena's going for here, even if the unusual source proves a way to do fairly modern material. That he makes it accessible in attitude does a lot to make the many very funny jokes work, even if it doesn't necessarily seem like one's sort of thing.
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