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Don Shanahan of Every Movie Has a Lesson writes film reviews with life lessons in mind from the serious to the farcical.

5th Chicago Critics Film Festival selection

THE LITTLE HOURS

3 STARS

The phrase “nuns behaving badly” sounds like a bad porno title or a silly hashtag. Alas, that’s the low-hanging fruit and chicanery afoot in The Little Hours debuting in limited release. Tracing inspiration to a yarn from one of Giovanni Boccaccio’s collected 14th-century novellas in The Decameron, the new ensemble film from Jeff Baena wraps it religious habit up with wit, erotica, and practical jokes from Italian prose translated into a modern vernacular. You know a film is asking for trouble when it gets condemned by The Catholic League.

Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen), Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) oversee a struggling convent populated by a pack of maligned young women prone to bullying, swearing, and all forms of abuse. The Little Hours follows three of them in particular, the prim and repressed Alessandra (Alison Brie), the nosy virgin Ginerva (musical comedienne Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), the bossiest bad influence of all. They secretly plague the lesser help and each other under the nose of their papal authoritarians.

Nearby, the loathsome Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) rules his manor with gluttony and callous supremacy. His hot-to-trot servant Massetto (David Franco) gets caught having an affair with the lady of the manor Francesca (Lauren Weedman of HBO’s Looking). Fleeing into the woods, Massetto is taken in by Tommasso. The priest gives Massetto shelter and work as a handyman on the condition that he feigns being a deaf mute to not disrupt the young girls. Be that as it may, the presence of a young virile male is too much. Temptation, sex drives, and competing affections take over this disturbingly horny honeypot of fornication hiding underneath the mundane.

The Little Hours, the third feature film from independent filmmaker Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, Joshy), somewhat follows its source material (Third Day/First Story “Masetto da Lamporecchio”), but veers and becomes unfocused in its third act. What started devious and brazen heads to an unnecessary darker place that soils the solid start of chuckles and snickers. The hems of the skit-like improv begin to show. Even hard-R comedy of the scatological variety can dance lightly with the right cadence. It’s a bit of a shame, because the potential combinations of personalities you can see from the dynamite cast are pretty choice.

Everyone involved is clearly having a blast with this raucous stage and creatively uncouth material. The trouble is consistency. By my estimation, half of the ensemble puts on thicker disguises of performance to blend into the mock medieval setting while others aren’t trying to hide their modern speech tones a bit. As fun as they are, Dave Franco and Aubrey Plaza suffer from what I call “The Mila Kunis Effect” where his California cackle and modern looks and her New York cadence just don’t play convincingly in a period piece. It’s distracting and kind of lazy. The works of Monty Python and Christopher Guest show that full dedication to characterization sells humor with tone as good as any written gag on paper.

LESSON #1: ADDING THE F-WORD MAKES ALL CONVERSATIONS MORE COLORFUL-- Aubrey Plaza can cuss like no one’s business (even when censored). Once she drops the first of many F-bombs, it’s easy to giggle like a teenager and enjoy the zany repartee from her mouth and the mouths of Offerman, Brie, and many others.

LESSON #2: SODOMY, IN ALL ITS FORMS, IS BAD-- Oral pleasure? Tsk tsk! Same sex exploration? Double tsk tsk! Backdoor lovin’? Triple tsk tsk! Report to the confessional immediately and get to work on your “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers.

LESSON #3: STOP ASKING SO MANY QUESTIONS AND DON’T BOTHER YOURSELF WITH OTHER PEOPLE-- Of all the performers in the film, Kate Micucci goes for broke the most. The eavesdropping and tattling fits of her Ginerva are, more often than not, what set off the falling dominoes of lusty encounters and vengeful urges boiling out of the other women. The silly Ginerva needs to mind her own business.

LESSON #4: IF YOU CAN’T LAUGH AT THE CHURCH, WHAT KIND OF PERSON ARE YOU?-- In the end (especially after Lesson #2), The Little Hours is a satirical dark comedy of complete fiction. Lighten up. Discover jest. Don’t take it too seriously and find the capacity to laugh. If you don’t think you can do that, turn away and go watch something else.

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