The idea of framing a movie around the centuries-old The Decameron probably seemed like a fun idea for writer/director Jeff Baena, allowing him and his cast to put whatever kind of debauchery they wanted onto a text that’s somewhat familiar for anyone who’s ever taken a literature class. But there’s sometimes a big chasm between idea and execution, as is greatly evident with The Little Hours.
At the story’s center are Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Ginerva (Kate Micucci), three 14th-century nuns whose words and actions are, shall we say, less than Christian. Their behavior is aggressive in almost every way, from profanity-strewn rants, violence toward those who cross their path, and a lust not normally associated with nuns.
That last trait gets heightened even more when Massetto (Dave Franco), a servant on the run from a local nobleman (Nick Offerman), gets taken into the convent by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). Even though Massetto is warned not to speak, his mere presence is a disruption for the three nuns, who each are attracted to them in their own way.
On a surface level, the film can be intermittently fun based purely on the talents of the actors. Each member of the cast — which also includes Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Paul Reiser, Adam Pally, and Paul Weitz — has the ability to elicit laughs solely from his or her delivery. That goes double for Plaza, who’s allowed to go wild in her role.
But as with any film, there’s got to be more than some laughs to make a film fully succeed. There doesn’t seem to be any real point to the plot, with each scene merely serving as a loose connection to the next and characters floating along for the ride. Perhaps those intimately familiar with the source material will find layers that aren’t noticeable to a general audience, but it’s hard to imagine there being a large enough audience like that.
Ultimately, the film doesn’t seem to serve its primary audience particularly well. Those looking for some naughty stuff to laugh at will get a few chuckles, but not enough to sustain them. The funny aspect of having normally staid characters act in a way that's unbecoming of them fades relatively quickly, leaving the bulk of the film to go through the motions.
I’m sure all of those involved with The Little Hours had a blast playing in their own personal comedy sandbox. Maybe next time they’ll actually come up with a decent story as well.
The Little Hours is now playing at Landmark Magnolia in Dallas and Angelika Film Center in Plano.