Little Hours (2017)

Directed by Jeff Baena

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Little Hours is a story loosely adapted from a 14th century novella written by Giovanni Boccaccio, not that I know who that is.  The movie is set in that same century, complete with a period piece setting, garb and ways of life.  Everything is accurate, I assume, to that time period except that the characters speak and act in a contemporary manner.  There is no effort to hide the fact that this is just a comedy, a great one, but just a comedy.  The cast is filled with recognizable faces and improvisers who feel like they’re just playing around.  Some period pieces require dedicated attention to detail, like with a Daniel-Day Lewis performance, but the actors of Little Hours play this like it’s set in 2018… or 2017, when it was released.  But it was probably filmed in 2016, and probably written before that.  So the characters act in a manner appropriate to somewhere between the mid 2000’s and 2013, let’s say.  But the actors perform with the qualities of contemporary culture when it was filmed.  Okay, so the story is set in the 1300’s, but the dialogue is reflective of around 2013, and the actors act with the disposition of someone from 2016.  And it was edited with the sensibilities of someone alive in 2017.  And analyzed from the perspective of someone in 2018.

The main characters are Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) and Kate Micucci (Garfunkel and Oates).  Their characters names are too long and hard to remember, so I’ll refer to them by the actresses’ names.  They are sexually repressed nuns who lash out at a farmhand and at each other.  When the farmhand is replaced by Dave Franco, pretending to be a deaf mute, they begin to use him as a sex toy.

Franco needs a place to stay because he has escaped from a castle where he was caught sleeping with the king’s wife.  The King (Nick Offerman wearing an Anton Cigurh-esque wig) wants Franco dead.  His two guards (played by comedians Adam Pally and Jon Gabrus) jog after him until he’s too far away.  I guess it’s not important that I mention that last part, but I’m a huge fan of Pally and Gabrus and felt it necessary to acknowledge them.  They’re great with little screen time.

Franco stumbles upon a priest (John C. Reilly) who resides at the same convent as the three main characters.  The priest takes him in, included in the deaf mute ruse.

At the convent, Franco wants only to get by unnoticed, but the nuns all seek to use him as part of their own sexual liberation.  This involves knives, love potion, blood and eventually a near sacrifice.

The plot is fairly thin, but it allows for the actors, all with backgrounds in comedy, to play around.  Much of the dialogue feels improvised, and the actors bring sensibilities already associated with their past work, into the movie.  Molly Shannon, I should mention, hangs around the edges of the movie as well, and later on Fred Armisen as a Bishop will show up to express dismay towards the three main characters’ behavior.

Little Hours is a sex comedy in the style of American Pie, and it tries to do little more than make you laugh.  It’s a brief movie, clocking in at just under 90 minutes, and it’s better than it has any right to be.  The freedom with which the film ignores its period piece setting is delightful, but other movies which do this (Monty Python for one) seem to sacrifice story for individual moments and gags.

Little Hours holds together pretty well as a story.  Sure, the emotion isn’t quite there, but it never pretends to be.  The characters are there for the comedy, and the movie holds together because there is some drama but mostly just likable performers doing a good job.

Several moments stand out in my memory, and they’re surely all improvised.  One is when Franco and Reilly spend a night together drinking the holy wine (which Reilly’s priest suggests isn’t that big of an offense but shouldn’t be mentioned to anyone else), and another involves the three nuns, along with a friend played by Jemima Kirke, drinking like college freshman in a dorm room.

Other moments include the banter between Pally and Gabrus (such as when they’re distracted by a turtle with a candle on it) and most of the conversations involving Fred Armisen.  Near the end of the movie there actually is a surprisingly tender moment, shared between Reilly and Shannon.

Beyond just the comedy, Little Hours is extremely polished.  It’s a beautifully shot movie, making use of its wide open views and gorgeous mountains, and the camera moves are deceptively complicated.  In one scene the camera slowly pulls back, revealing a large table at which all the nuns sit, while we begin to hear the dialogue between Reilly and the farmhand whom the nuns were previously berating.  The camera slowly pans right so that we can see them through the window, before zooming in on them.  It’s impressive technically and just one of many touches in a movie that feels made with an amount of care many of these movies don’t seem to have.

The point is the comedy, the script and the performances, but Little Hours is a funny and beautiful movie, the direction keeping up with the apparent improvisation.

Up Next: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Steel Helmet (1951)

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