Officially, the MPAA has rated The Little Hours R for “graphic nudity, sexual content, and language.” Let’s be more specific. It has been rated R for excessive profanity, severe beatings, drunkenness, drug use, threesomes, comically profuse pubic hair, and extensive witchcraft. It’s the kind of movie a 12-year-old boy might stay up late to catch on Cinemax: sweetly sophomoric, not so much a film as a series of sporadically funny sketches taking low-brow shots at a broad target.
A loose adaptation of one chapter in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a 14th century collection of Italian novellas, it’s the story of three mischievous young nuns living at an Italian convent. The opening scenes, in which a character silently leads a mule and wagon over gorgeous Tuscan hills, tease with their humility and faithfulness a thorough skewering of religious piety, but The Little Hours doesn’t care enough about its aim. It promises sacrilege, but it’s really just light heresy. Bad Nuns would have been a more apt title.
Worse still, not all of them are even bad. There’s Alessandra (Alison Brie), an innocent young woman waiting for her father (Paul Reiser) to come up with a dowry so she can marry her betrothed. She’s biding her time in a convent to please him, and struggling not to fall under the spell of Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), a sarcastic degenerate who bears a strong resemblance to every other character Plaza has played.
Along with Genevra (Kate Micucci), a gentle innocent, the three find a prize worthy of their boredom-driven mischief with the arrival of a farm boy (Dave Franco), who was fired from his last job after being caught fraternizing with his employer’s wife. Convinced by the alcoholic priest who oversees the convent (John C. Reilly, whose gentle depravity gets the biggest laughs) to pretend to be a deaf mute, the boy stays silent while the three young nuns unleash their passions on him.
Didn’t we just see this story? The plot of The Little Hours is reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which opened in theaters last week. Each is about a group of isolated young women who go a little nuts when a handsome man comes to stay. Both are set in the past and come with an expectation of feminist themes, but their actual sexual politics are a little more slippery. What does it say about women when they become jealous and violent in the presence of a hot guy? Or are we supposed to blame a society that isolates them in forced chastity? Ultimately, both films simply go for laughs, leaving the complex political subtext largely unexamined.
What is most problematic then about The Little Hours is how quickly those laughs fade. Sure, it’s fun to see Plaza scream and cuss, but her character starts out fallen, so her descent into further wickedness doesn’t have much of a punch. Brie feels curiously underused, and her character barely has an arc at all. Only sweet Micucci finds the anarchic tone the movie needs; Genevra’s first sip of wine sends her headfirst into a spiral of debauchery that concludes with her smearing blood on her face and dancing naked through the woods wearing the world’s biggest merkin. In Micucci’s immodest performance, we see the brazen comedy that could have been, if only writer and director Jeff Baena had aimed a little lower.
The Little Hours opens Friday at E Street Cinema.