Can an independent comedy about 14th-century religious debauchery involving naughty nuns be a legitimate rib-tickler in a sluggish summer movie season of wacky, yet toothless, farces (e.g., “The House”)? Refreshingly it can be, especially if it is writer-director Jeff Baena’s boisterous and bawdy The Little Hours, a corruptible comedy that brings its satirical cynicism to the forefront in devilish fashion. Unapologetic with its indecent, wry wink at unconventional Church-related moral fragility, The Little Hours is literally and figuratively a bad habit for a trio of noxious nuns on the run.
Baena’s (“Life After Beth”) twisted take on clergy-oriented improprieties is inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a 14th-century classic collection of short stories that skewered the church-going polities through improper sexual hilarity. The story focuses its stinging irreverence on three nuns existing in a countryside convent located in Garfagnana (modern-day Tuscany). The heightened nonsense (or shall I say “nun”-sense) features the individual and collective exploits of raging Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza, “Safety Not Guaranteed”), gossiping Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci, “Don’t Think Twice”) and husband-seeking Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie, “How To Be Single”). These clothed cuties can be cutthroat at any given moment — an early scene features a humorous, yet heated, verbal exchange between the three acid-tongued sisters cursing at the local affable groundskeeper who dared to acknowledge them through a friendly greeting.
Included in the madcap antics of the sisters are a who’s who of peculiar personalities: Intoxicated Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly, “Kong: Skull Island”), spiteful Sister Marea (Molly Shannon, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and handsome church laborer Massetto (Dave Franco, “Now You See Me 2”).
It’s Massetto that sets off the lewd sparks in the repressed nuns as his presence adds to the already tension-filled cattiness that exists behind the closed-off convent walls.
On the run from a scorned lord (Nick Offerman, “The Founder”) that wants him dead for messing around with his wife in the manor bedroom, Massetto finds himself at the commune at the invite of Father Tommasso to work as the resident handyman, but with one stipulation — he must pose as a deaf-mute in order to not stir up the provocative pot within the compound. But so what if he cannot communicate, the saucy sisters see this as an advantage because the hunky Massetto now cannot breathe a word of his fleshy dalliances with these divine divas.
The overall lunacy is absolutely ribald as Baena and his committed performers joyously stick their tongues out at everything piety with subversive force. There are titillating sorcery practices involving naked witches. Continuous poisonous quips and F-bombs roll off the loose lips of the sassy sisters. The ballsy boundaries are crossed repeatedly as Baena experiments with a variety of humor genres that are effective: Deadpan, slapstick, suggestive and conceptual. Consequently, The Little Hours feels effortless in its obstreperous skin (a creative mating between “The Beguiled” and “Monty Python and The Holy Grail.”)
As the trio of rule-breaking nuns using their mischievousness and unhinged sexuality to challenge the conventions of the church, Plaza, Brie and Micucci are convincingly desirable and deranged. The threesome — acting as if they are millennial misfits in the Old World — pull off the tawdry tickles with feisty flair. Offerman’s unctuous turn as the blood-thirsty lord out to skin the hide of Franco’s rambunctious Romeo is a heralded hoot, while Franco’s fraternizing Massetto gives just the right amount of erotic craziness to the holy sexpots that want desperately to jump his bones. Plus, Fred Armisen (“The Rocker”) steals the show as the visiting archbishop whose incredulous reactions to the unspeakable infractions that the nuns, bottle-sipping Father Tommasso and wicked Sister Marea commit is worth the uncontrollable laughs alone.
Unfortunately, on a smaller scope, The Little Hours does not have a prayer to compete with the more broader and exposed comedies with bigger budgets and enticing marketing. Nonetheless, the reckless and rollicking outlandishness of Baena’s foul-mouthed, pilloried gem makes this denigrating vehicle one of the best (undiscovered) laughfests of the year.