The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Little Hours

The Little Hours is a comic adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, a series of 14th century novellas in which ten young people trying to escape the Black Plague hide in an Italian villa and tell one another stories to pass the time. If that doesn't sound like a laugh riot to you, you're not alone. And that's part of what makes writer/director Jeff Baena's movie so funny. Giving some of today's top comedic actors such highly unlikely material yields a work that is appealingly offbeat and unpredictable.

Set during the Middle Ages, the movie stars Alison Brie as Alessandra, a marriage-minded young woman forced into a convent against her will by her father (Paul Reiser). She spends her days praying and doing chores, alongside the angry, foulmouthed Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and the mousy Generva (Kate Micucci). Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Mother Superior Marea (Molly Shannon) oversee them, attempting to keep their daily dramas in check.

The convent is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Massetto (Dave Franco), a poor servant on the run after betraying his heartless, conspiracy theory-loving master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). Father Tommasso takes him in, insisting that he pretend to be deaf and mute so as not to attract the attention of the youthful nuns. That plan doesn't go so well.

The Little Hours is one wild and crazy movie. Aside from horny young nuns who often speak like drunken sailors, it contains drug and alcohol abuse, fornication, and witchcraft. The funniest scene finds an utterly bewildered bishop (Fred Armisen) cataloging all the sordid things the other characters have done. The central joke, however, is not simply “nuns and priests doing bad things.” Instead, The Little Hours satirizes repression. Everyone in the story is, by circumstance, forced to hold in their natural impulses and to deny themselves the types of gratification that all of us desire at one level or another: to have fun, to experience romantic love, to satisfy sexual urges. Seeing the cracks in their armor generates some sizable laughs.

This is where Baena's vision is most clear. The Little Hours isn't totally the shock comedy it may look like on the surface. Even in its broadest moments, there's a ring of truth underneath. It adheres to the edgy nature of The Decameron, while also maintaining a fundamental sense of humanity. One of the most interesting things about the Catholic Church is that it requires clergy to gain mastery over basic desires (especially carnal ones) in an attempt to achieve a state of holiness. That is an incredibly beautiful and powerful goal, but also one that's extraordinarily difficult because it's so at odds with human nature – a point the film makes through heavy comic exaggeration, if not with an excess of depth.

What the characters do in this story is certainly outrageous. Even if we ourselves would not do what they do, we kind of empathize with their imperfections and failings. The Little Hours may raise cries of blasphemy in some quarters, but I'm not so sure. The film doesn't criticize or mock faith, it simply shows characters who aren't equipped to make the leap that's required of them. They may still get there. Well, some of them at least. Fernanda is a pretty terrible person.

All of the actors are extremely funny, showing fearlessness in carrying out the unrepentantly R-rated material. (Micucci especially deserves props for being both fully naked and completely unhinged in one scene.) They help to ground the inherently over-the-top nature of the comedy. Production values, meanwhile, are superb. The movie was filmed in pastoral Italy, and it visually takes you to the time period in which the story is set.

The Little Hours has a bit of a tonal problem. There are a few sections that are almost played seriously, particularly a subplot involving witchcraft. It borders on feeling like a horror movie in those spots. And again, the central idea of people struggling to reign in their impulses could have been developed even more fully. The theme is there, as are the laughs, but it rarely reaches beyond a general observation.

Laughter helps soothe over any bumps a comedy may have, though. The Little Hours offers a lot of opportunities for laughter. For whatever flaws it may possess, the movie is hysterically funny, plain and simple.

( out of four)

The Little Hours is rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content and language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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