It’s an idea so rife with comedic possibilities, it’s a wonder Mel Brooks hadn’t thought of it years ago: What if 14th-century nuns acted and spoke like 21st-century women? Thus is the anachronistic guiding light of The Little Hours, a sex-fueled comedy based on a selection of stories from The Decameron by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. Despite obvious differences in how the characters speak to one another, writer-director Jeff Baena sticks to the main plot points and even some of the subtext from the centuries-old source material. I’m not extremely well-versed in nun-based cinema, but I would imagine this is the only such film that opens with a nun yelling, “Hey, don’t fucking talk to us!” before heading to Mass.
Nominally set in 1347 Garfagnana, the film is centered around a trio of nuns: Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci) and Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Their peaceful countryside convent is shaken by the new presence of Massetto (Dave Franco), a virile servant on the run from his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), for sleeping with Bruno’s wife. Because nuns have routinely berated the help in the past, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) takes Massetto in as a gardener for the grounds on the condition that he pose as a deaf-mute. It turns out Alessandra is so desperate for a potential suitor that she throws herself at Massetto without even being able to argue that he’s a “really good listener.” Meanwhile, Fernanda and Ginevra manifest their own plans for the new resident himbo while Lord Bruno furiously searches for his lost property.
The Little Hours is the rare comedy that not only doesn’t wear out its welcome but actually gets better as it picks up momentum. Baena makes the mistake of dedicating a bit too much of the paltry 87-minute running time to setting up Massetto and his agreement with Father Tommasso, which swallows up the entire first act. More time could have been spent setting up the trio of nuns, whose personalities have overlaps that it would have been nice to distinguish before Massetto hits the scene. Marta, a lascivious friend of Fernanda’s played by Jemima Kirke, also shows up in the second act at around the same time as Massetto and pushes things where they need to go comedically. Fernanda unleashes some serious nihilistic leanings while Ginevra reveals deeper secrets about her sexual and religious preferences and Alessandra pursues her affair with the duplicitous Massetto.
As with his 2014 zom-com Life After Beth, Baena brings Reilly and Molly Shannon back as romantic partners, although the stakes are higher for their partnership in The Little Hours. Since the latter plays the convent’s Mother Superior, Father Tommasso faces excommunication if his relationship with Mother Marea is discovered. The hushed exchanges and guarded flirtations between Tommasso and Marea give a sweet counterbalance to the more abrasive and bawdy interactions between the other nuns. Speaking of familiar faces from the comedy world, the always-funny Fred Armisen shines in the third act as a visiting bishop who’s arrived just in time to see the convent devolve into a den of iniquity. When allegations of witchcraft and sexual impropriety spread around the community, the bishop naturally calls a tribunal and Armisen is perfect as the flummoxed arbiter of proper conduct, who claims “This is the longest list I’ve ever had for sins!”
By the time things start to wind down in The Little Hours, I confess I had urges to watch several more hours of these sinful characters in this most pious of settings. Given that the film did less than $2 million at the box office, the possibility of a sequel or spin-off is slim to none, which is a shame given the amount of comedy gold that could still be mined from this premise. Had it performed a bit better in theaters, I could see it having a similar trajectory to What We Do in the Shadows, the hilarious vampire mockumentary that only made a few million domestic theatrical dollars but was greenlit as an FX series in 2018. Four years later, it’s on its way to a fourth season and has remained remarkably consistent in terms of comedic quality. Given how much Paramount+ (where The Little Hours is currently streaming) is investing in original content to compete with the other streamers these days, I’ll keep the hopes for a The Little Hours spin-off series in my prayers.