Verdict: “The Little Hours” is by turn enjoyable and a snore, milking its classic material for only the most obvious gags.
Look, I’m a human being. I like the idea of foul mouthed, sex-crazed nuns as much as anybody, and I especially like the idea of those nuns being Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, and Alison Brie with a dash of John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen for good measure. Thus, in theory, everything about “The Little Hours” is a win.
Ah, it’s a cruel world. People shouldn’t hang their hats on theoretical’s.
“The Little Hours” is a painfully hit or miss comedy that sticks to obvious jokes, making it an unfortunate ninety minutes of dull banter and the occasional stand-out laugh.
Alessandra (Brie), Fernanda (Plaza), and Ginerva (Kate Miccuci) are nuns in a 14th-century convent run by Sister Marea (Shannon) and Father Tommasso (Reilly). When Tommasso comes across Massetto (Dave Franco), he brings Massetto on as the new gardener and things quickly get out of hand. All three girls want Massetto’s body for their own, ushering in lots of jealous defrocking, drug use and other similar un-Christianly conduct. The infighting comes to a head just as Bishop Bartolomeo (Armisen) shows up for an unexpected visit.
So much great content, so many missed opportunities! Writer/director Jeff Baena adapted the film from a story in the 14th-century book “The Decameron,” which is literally about a bunch of people passing time during the Bubonic Plague by telling each other erotic stories (and tragedies and comedies, but we’re really only concerned with the erotic ones here). His approach could not be more YouTube comedy — lots of talking comedy instead of doing comedy, and even more of “Hey, nuns swearing is funny!” and “Hey, nuns on drugs are funny!” and “Hey, nuns having sex is funny!”
To be fair, all of these things are funny. They’ve also been done before, and they’ve been done better, so the bigger issue here is that Baena makes “X is funny!” the joke instead of building jokes out of that basic concept. Yeah, nuns swearing is, on the surface, funny, but it gets old when that’s the only punchline.
And that’s really sad considering the potential these actors have for great comedy. Forget Plaza and Franco; Aubrey hasn’t been good since “Parks and Rec” (sorrynotsorry) and, seriously, why is Dave even popular? I don’t love Artsier-Than-Thou James either but he’s at least had some good roles and is, like, attractive). Fred, Molly, John, and Alison have all proved their comedy chops and they feel flat out wasted in this film. It hurts a little. Honestly, it does.
Sadder still, the end of the film frames everything in a happier light. Things are going to be okay. There’s hope for love and happiness, even when confined to a convent. The movie’s long stretches of seriousness—or rather, deadpan jokes that don’t land—makes it seem like it’s reaching for this ending that imbues everything with meaning.
But has it earned it? Nah, doesn’t seem so. Each scene leads us deeper into a big pit of nothing. Everyone sucks, is stupid or is plotting some misdeed. The convent sucks. Lesbian sex doesn’t suck but also doesn’t teach anyone anything. Witches are cool, but also don’t really tell us anything except that it’s way cooler to be a witch than a nun.
In the end, all of us watching “The Little Hours” are like the guards Fernanda distracts using a turtle with a candle on its back. “Oh, cool! Let’s follow it and see what it does!” It, unsurprisingly, walks around for a little while with a candle on its back, which is kinda cool, then very boring and ultimately becomes a pretty hollow hour and a half.