In the pull quotes for the new comedy The Little Hours, posters and trailers include an intriguing review from The Catholic League: “It is trash. Pure trash.” On a surface level, it is easy to see why the Church would be outraged. Writer and director Jeff Baena centers on a trio of nuns who are profane, ill-tempered, and profoundly sacrilegious. Still, the moniker “trash” is a little misleading, since Baena’s true purpose is tamer than the word suggests. His comedy has an affable shaggy dog quality, amounting to the sort of film you want to succeed more than it actually does. The Catholic Church should reserve its outrage for more searing films like Spotlight and Netflix’s The Keepers, instead of drawing attention to a harmless comedy whose primary message is that, yes, men and women of the cloth are human, too.
Baena based the film on The Decameron, a fourteenth century collection of Italian novellas by Giovanni Boccaccio. I’m no expert on literature from the period, and yet The Little Hours features the sort of deceptions and moral quandaries that would influence everyone from Shakespeare to Poe. Sisters Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Genevra (Kate Micucci) are live in the same convent. They are abusive to their gardener – the reasons why are left unsaid, making their hostility all the more hilarious – so he abruptly quits, to the chagrin of Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). Tommasso finds a speedy solution to his problem: he stumbles upon Massetto (Dave Franco), a servant running from his master, and they strike up mutually beneficial agreement. Massetto will work as Tommasso’s new gardener, pretending to be deaf-mute, and in exchange Massetto will have free food/lodging. This works well enough, until Massetto must maintain his ruse through countless confessions and sexual advances.
The pleasures of The Little Hours are satisfying when they are modest. Plaza, who also produced the film, clearly is having fun as an ill-tempered nun. She verbally eviscerates one character of another, and her unexplained misanthropy is something everyone sort of tolerates. There is a scene where Fernanda learns Massetto is deaf-mute, and responds by shrieking into his ear. All the characters speak with modern English, keeping their American accents, so part of the irony is how the dialogue does not jibe with the inequities of feudal Italy. Alessandra has a long, droll scene with her father (Paul Reiser) that only deepens the frustration that informs her every subsequent choice. There are additional bit roles for everyone from Nick Offerman to Fred Armisen, and Baena uses their comic personas to achieve the opposite of immersion. The plot feels artificial and bizarre because the actors keep a comic distance from the material. Even when one character threatens the other with elaborate torture, there is a sense everyone is going to be fine.
Massetto’s relationship with the three nuns leads to a transgressive climax (pun intended) involving witchcraft, human sacrifice, hardcore nudity, and drug use. Despite this headlong dive into R-rated territory, The Little Hours does not approach Grand-Guignol levels of decadence or chaos. For every comic scene, there are two scenes where the plot advances at the expense of laughs. Perhaps Baena’s devotion to the source material is too conservative, or literal-minded. The end already feels rushed: after an inspired sight gag, the nuns easily rescue Massetto, signaling humanity/goodness that’s more humanist than traditional Christian morality. Everyone learns to be less rigid, and more tolerant. It is a good message, even if it’s inherently obvious society has made progress since the mid-1300s. This is a comedy that begins with a wicked streak, and abandons its nerve halfway through. If anything, they should have leaned into The Catholic’s League dismissal, instead of merely just slapping the ward “trash” onto the poster.