Your enjoyment of “The Little Hours” will depend wholly on your response to a sex comedy that looks one way (14th century Italian folktale, affordably but attractively in period) and sounds another (21st century American deadpan; Aubrey Plaza of “Parks and Recreation” is in it, after all). The strategy works surprisingly well. I liked a lot of writer-director Jeff Baena’s picture; it may be a one-joke movie, but I’ve seen comedies recently that would’ve killed for that many.
Various Catholic-affiliated petitions have been circulating in online protest of “The Little Hours,” opposing its depiction of relations between priests and nuns, and its general, blithely raunchy tone. Much of the story is set in a Tuscan convent, where a manservant (Dave Franco) is on the run from a vengeful lord (Nick Offerman) and the lord’s bored wife (Lauren Weedman) after the servant’s dalliances with the missus come to light.
The young man’s given shelter by the monastery priest (John C. Reilly), but together concoct a ruse to have the Franco character, Masseto, pose as a deaf mute. The priest counsels him to avoid the young women in residence who may find his presence distracting. The central trio of lust-addled females in inconvenient habits is played by Alison Brie (married to Franco in real life); Kate Micucci; and Plaza (Baena’s off-screen partner, and star of Baena’s earlier comedy “Life After Beth”).
The material springs from “The Decameron,” Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of randy, culturally influential tales that inspired everything from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to the 1962 film anthology “Boccaccio ‘70,” which could barely contain the likes of Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg and Romy Schneider. (Pier Paolo Pasolini did his own “Decameron” in 1971.) Baena’s two elements from the original Boccaccio stories about a faux-mute mixing it up with the nuns, and a peasant cuckolding a king. The side characters in “The Little Hours” include a Mother Superior (Molly Shannon, playing it straight, and without quite enough screen time) secretly in bed with Reilly’s amiable priest, and the local bishop (Fred Armisen), a late arrival to the story, aghast at the activities of the monastery.
The women at the heart of “The Little Hours” all want out. Brie’s character, the prim one, is hot to marry the local merchant but her father (Paul Reiser) can’t come up with a proper dowry. Much of the dialogue leans on blunt anachronism though, in one early trash-talking sequence, where the ladies harass the monastery gardener, Baena’s script pointedly references the free-floating anti-Semitism of Boccaccio’s stories.
Filming on location in Tuscany, cinematographer Quyen Tran lends a steady glow and a pretty sheen to the images, though the camera’s dreamy slow zooms recall an average Italian soft-core romp of the ‘70s. Sensual longing isn’t incidental either to Boccaccio or to “The Little Hours”; it’s the energy source.
In closing, let us praise the musical score by Dan Romer, which has one ear on ancient-sounding choral arrangements and the other on messing with that sound. And among a savvy cast, Weedman (lately of HBO’s “Looking”) tops the roster with her priceless, understated turn as the royal sneaking around with a Franco. Someone write this dame a script!