By Jack Dignan
Originally Published On Salty Popcorn
This may only be the first film I’ve seen so far at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, but I think I’ve found it. I think I’ve found the strangest, funniest and most utterly bonkers film they’ve got playing. There’s nothing out there remotely like THE LITTLE HOURS, and I mean that in the best way possible. As the film unfolds, you’re slowly taken down a never ending rabbit hole, unravelling the unpredictable madness and sheer ridiculousness hidden up its sleeve. Those easily offended, steer clear. Everyone else, everyone who has a darker, more twisted sense of humour, get ready. Nothing can prepare you for the joyous experience that is watching THE LITTLE HOURS.
The film is based loosely on a 14th Century Italian collection of novellas titled The Decameron, but, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, adaptation feels like the wrong word. ‘A comedic take on the classic book’ sounds far more accurate. We follow the stories of a group of nuns living out their lives in a convent in the countryside. Except these aren’t your typical nuns. And this isn’t your typical movie. Alessandra (Alison Brie) is alone and unable to control her emotions. Her father, a high figure in the church, donates a great deal to keep the convent running, but she’s looking for something more in her life. She’s looking for love. Then there’s Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), a loud and sexually curious nun prone to violent outbursts towards her fellow nuns, as well as the groundskeeper, Ilario (Paul Reiser). Her violent actions have forced him to quit, leaving the convent without a groundskeeper to look after the land.
Meanwhile, Massetto (Dave Franco) is working as a manservant for the pompous Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). He’s secretly been sleeping with Bruno’s wife, Francesca (Lauren Weedman), and it’s not too long before Bruno discovers this and puts a bounty on Massetto’s head. He flees, and while on run he bumps into Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who offers to aid him as repayment for a debt. Massetto is smuggled into the convent, where he’s staged as a mute, deaf groundskeeper. He does his best to keep low, avoiding the nuns, but it doesn’t last long. The nuns start to become sexually curious. They both use and seduce Massetto into a number of situations that are all way too good to spoil. The premise behind THE LITTLE HOURS may not sound overly fantastic, but it’s a very difficult film to summarise. It’s weird. Very weird. But there’s brilliance within it, and the story is best experienced rather than told to you. A lot more is going on here, hidden beneath the surface.
This a film with a sick, dark and frequently blasphemous sense of humour. It riffs on the church, but never in a demeaning way. While set and based around religion, this isn’t a religious movie. It’s a comedy that’s so much more, so much deeper, and far more funnier than something like this should be. Yes, sex jokes and crude, idiotic humour are aplenty, but they’re usually delivered in a quirky, mature and well written way. It’s dumb humour executed in a smart way, taking advantage of as many subtleties as it can. Relationships and character feelings aren’t spelled out in big monologues, like so many comedies do. They’re never forced in, nor rushed into, but instead set free at a necessary, hilarious time. Everything flows naturally. It’s this natural, well-timed humour and character beats that often bring with it the biggest laughs.
A lot of this really comes down to the screenplay by writer-director Jeff Baena (LIFE AFTER BETH). His writing is the work of a mad genius, so determined to create the best possible film he can. He revels in the ridiculousness and insanity of every scenario, giving it a sense of constant warmth and admiration. Every joke he writes is funny and original, and the tremendously talented cast deliver them with sublime skill. Baena takes his deranged protagonists and puts them into the wildest of situations. A lot of his characters should be unlikeable. I should’ve hated nearly every one of them, but I didn’t. Baena’s writing is so tonally-focussed and ingeniously ballistic that every character serves as a worthy hero in their own fucked up way. Aubrey Plaza’s character is nuts. She is. She’s a total douche with no respect for anyone, making that disrespect known, but Plaza can pull that off. She takes Baena’s flawed hero and creates an empathetic, strangely likeable character out of it. Plaza becomes the star player.
As much as I loved Plaza, and as much as she steals the show, this isn’t any one person’s movie. Everyone gives it their absolute all, and they shine. The general premise of every character is over the top and stupid, but it works. Their motives and ideals are clear. A pristine picture is painted of who they are and what they want, and every actor has a thorough understanding of what makes them tick. John C. Reilly is hysterical as the head priest at the convent, sharing so many of the best scenes with his fellow cast members. Reilly spends plenty of time with Dave Franco, which is really the only times when Franco is allowed to speak, and their dynamic made for an intelligent, often hilarious component of the movie. Franco’s acting relies heavily on his body movements, and it works. His scenes without dialogue were often far funnier than his scenes with dialogue, especially those with off-screen partner Alison Brie. Their personal chemistry carries over on screen and makes for so many unforgettable scenarios, particularly one involving an elderly nun and a very awkward sex scene.
THE LITTLE HOURS is wild and incredibly unpredictable, making it so much fun to watch. You can tell the cast is loving this movie, and their fun is infectious. If they have fun, you have fun too, but the massive scale cast does bring a few narrative issues. There’s so many different stories and character arcs going on that it’s often difficult to blend. Even the donkey gets an arc, you guys. The first act is a series of mostly unrelated strands yet to connect together. Each of the stories are hilarious in their own right, full of perverse language and some very Monty Python-esque gags, but they don’t always connect as well they should. It jumps around from story to story, planting the seeds for the chaos yet to ensure. Dave Franco goes on to play a major role, and his set up features one of my favourite scenes in the movie (Nick Offerman should be in every film ever), but he’s distant from the rest of the cast for quite some time. He’s almost from an entirely different movie.
Still, everything is necessary, and in the grand scheme of things, this is only a 90 minute movie. It’s short, sweet and to the point. Early characters or early foreshadowing don’t always play a major role until late in the game, making their initial appearance somewhat startling, but later growing into a satisfying payoff. The final act of this movie is absolutely bonkers in the best way it can be. We’re introduced to Fred Armistan’s character, and everything following his arrival, whether it involves him or not, is classic. There is a sequence late into the movie that’s way too good for me to tell you anything about. It’s so out of the blue and over the top, but it blends into the story perfectly. This movie already had me in hysterics, but I nearly died watching that scene. You’ll know it when it comes. It’s a moment too good to be true, leading into a wild, crowd pleasing finale with some serious heart.
There’s no doubt about it; THE LITTLE HOURS is one of the most obscure comedies I have ever seen, but it works. Everyone involved, whether it’s the talent behind the camera of the noticeably large cast in front it, is having a ball, making this one hell of a good time. Not everyone who sees this movie is going to like it. It’s going to turn a lot of people off with its strange, idiosyncratic style of humour, but if it strikes a nerve with you, you’re going to love it. The mad, the adventurous and the daring need to see this movie. Comedy lovers rejoice. This film is amazing.
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