The Little Hours’ opening credits feature several minutes of a habited Aubrey Plaza walking a pregnant donkey through golden sunlit fields. It’s a fitting introduction to the film: weird, kind of funny, beautifully shot, mildly pointless.
Writer/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) based The Little Hours on a novella from The Decameron, a 14th century Italian book that spins yarns of love, sex, pranks and the Black Death. It’s a pretty singular inspiration for a film: a handsome servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) flees execution and hides in a nunnery, disguised as a deaf-mute. The irreverent young nuns (Alison Brie as Alessandra, Aubrey Plaza as Fernanda, Kate Micucci as Genevra) who live there, bored silly by their days of inescapable routine, take turns trying to seduce this poor kid, who’s doing the best he can to stay out of trouble. Unsurprisingly, trouble follows anyway. We’ve also got a drunk priest, a beleaguered Mother Superior, a cuckolded lord, the cuckolding lady, lesbians, incompetent knights, some nods to the occult and a gardener who is inexplicably the target of the nuns’ violent ire. There’s no small amount of plot here.
Though the film takes place in the 14th century and is filmed – stunningly – in pastoral Italy, Baena’s dialogue is unabashedly modern. Fernanda, Alessandra and Genevra laugh and swear and gossip and screw like Millennials – from our current millennium, that is. Fernanda is particularly foul-mouthed, and the rapid-fire abuse she bellows at just about everyone in her orbit provides a goodly portion of The Little Hours’ laughs.
And there are plenty of laughs – it’s a funny movie, mostly, but not entirely a comedy. Tonally, The Little Hours is all over the place, skipping through genres with glee, and while there’s an admirable freedom there, it’s hard to say that this free-wheeling approach to tone strictly works. Part medieval sex romp, part horror movie (yep!), and starring many of your favorite actors – John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Adam Pally and Nick Offerman also star in roles of varying size but uniform charm – that sounds like a dream, right?
It should be, and it really almost is. Every performance here is a delight, with Franco as a goofy, good-natured stand-out and Nick Offerman playing Nick Offerman in a Prince Valiant wig. The Little Hours is made up of a wealth of fun, crowd-pleasing elements, many of which I don’t want to spoil here because some of the pleasure is in the surprise.
But here’s the problem: those elements rarely cohere in a way that feels like an actual story. It’s just fun, foolish thing followed by fun, foolish thing. Even that approach would work if we didn’t see some of the effort behind the whimsy, but by the end of its ninety minutes, this fun little flight of fancy starts to feel an awful lot like work.