Nuns Gone Wild: Cast game to appall in often outrageous "The Little Hours"

The Little Hours (2017)
90 min., rated R.

There is a little Mel Brooks and some Monty Python running through the genetic make-up of “The Little Hours,” an irreverent bite of medieval lunacy that’s very amusing yet still stretched too thin even at 90 minutes. Loosely based on a collection of stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century text “The Decameron,” the film is farcical and anachronistic in that period nuns shout “fuck” a whole lot, but the source material is already about suppressed carnal desires anyway, so it seems only appropriate. Devout members of the Catholic Church will probably find all sorts of blasphemy with this convent-set sex farce or just not know what to make of it. With writer-director Jeff Baena (who already turned Aubrey Plaza into a zombie in 2014’s “Life After Beth”) attempting to make it more consequential than a nuns-gone-wild gimmick, “The Little Hours” is often comedically outrageous, even if it doesn’t take off as one might pray it would.

Set in 1346 in the Italian countryside of Garfagnana, “The Little Hours” begins with bored Sisters Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Genevra (Kate Micucci) verbally berating the groundskeeper at their convent, run by Mother Marea (Molly Shannon). The story proper begins when a manservant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is chased out of his master’s castle for committing adultery with Francesca (Lauren Weedman), the wife of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). Evading Bruno and his guards (Adam Pally, Jon Gabrus), Massetto comes across the boozy Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who’s just lost all of his convent goods in a stream. Grateful for the young servant’s help, Tommasso offers Massetto a job as the groundskeeper but asks him to pretend to be a deaf-mute, as the mouthy nuns harassed and scared away the last one. As soon as Massetto arrives, Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), who’s eager to leave the convent and be married, soon finds lust and gives in to impulses that are deemed to be unholy. Pretty soon, the whole convent starts falling into wickedness right before Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen) shows up.

Many individual moments—like Tommasso’s reaction to Massetto confessing sodomy—hit their mark and are more sinfully funny than the whole, which doesn’t stick around long in the memory. When the comedy suddenly stops, it then ventures into being about something more, introducing the beguiling Marta (Jemima Kirke), who practices witchcraft and seduces the already-vicious Sister Fernanda and, by accident, Genevra. Under the direction of an outline rather than a shooting script by Jeff Baena, the cast is game to appall in a way that’s broad enough to remain silly, especially the foulmouthed, habit-clad Aubrey Plaza. The wonderfully offbeat Kate Micucci deserves props for fearlessly running with the arc of guileless busybody Sister Genevra, which involves a lot of streaking and hysterics, and though they're both not on screen long enough, Fred Armissen is priceless as the bishop and Lauren Weedman is a sneaky hoot as the lord's horny wife. As long as it stays on target, “The Little Hours” is a bawdy time with comic talent around every pew.

Grade: B -