Admirers of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century work The Decameron (that’s all of us, right?) will not be surprised to learn that Jeff Baena’s adaptation The Little Hours ignores most of the tome’s 100 tales, honing in only on a couple that revolve around a convent whose nuns are ready to do a bit of vow-breaking. What may be a surprise is that this zippy pic works so well — incorporating enough 21st-century attitude to emulate Boccaccio, who wrote in the vernacular of his day, without descending into silly, anything-goes anachronism. Top-shelf comic talent should attract more attention than usual for a period piece intentionally lacking in dignified splendor; as with Baena’s first two very enjoyable, very unsuccessful pictures (Life After Beth and Joshy, both of which debuted here at Sundance), it will be seeking a cult audience instead of a mainstream one.
The year is 1347, and Catholic Sisters Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci) and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) are not your ordinary young nuns. Pious-seeming Alessandra, hard at work doing embroidery, is actually just waiting for her once-rich father (Paul Reiser) to help her get married — “I was hoping we’d have the whole dowry situation locked up,” he sighs — while the others do menial chores and vent their frustrations in expletive-rich attacks on an innocent gardener.
When a servant at a nearby estate (Dave Franco’s Masseto) gets caught in flagrante with the boss’s wife (Nick Offerman and Lauren Weedman are the entertainingly unhappy lord and lady of the manor), he flees and stumbles into refuge at this convent. Searching for a way to replace the gardener with someone the sisters won’t try to murder, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) suggests that Masseto pretend to be deaf and mute, interacting as little as possible with residents. That doesn’t keep all three virgins from deciding to commit mortal sins with the strapping lad.
From the opening scene, in which Plaza deploys her full-force millennial scorn on a bit player, it’s clear that no attempt will be made to, as the Bible might put it, hide the cast’s individual lights under a bushel of period-aping verisimilitude. (Reilly and Molly Shannon, as the nun who may long for him, are exceptions to some degree, playing characters with more reason to keep up appearances.) Actors (especially Micucci) don’t modulate their accents any more than Scorsese’s cast did in The Last Temptation of Christ; the film makes a throwaway joke about this when Jemima Kirke enters the action and, being the only one around with an English accent, is accused of not fitting in. Likewise, production design and Quyen Tran’s location photography go just far enough to suggest the setting without bringing it to life.
Relieved of the burden of creating a fully convincing Middle Ages, the pic can focus on laughs. Franco makes a sympathetically bewildered sex object here, eagerly accepting some of the unexpected action coming his way while panicking at other, weirder advances. (Some of these nuns dabble in love drugs and witchcraft; one is even secretly — gasp — a Jew.) A comedy in both the current and the original senses of the word, Little Hours earns its laughs before ensuring a happy end. Sure, the increasingly agitated plot eventually exposes all sins and gets nearly everyone condemned by a visiting bishop (Fred Armisen). But a bit of cloister-inspired ingenuity fixes that, leading to an end in which all but the vengeful and the judgmental find happiness, or at least a new shot at it.
enue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production company: Destro Films
Cast: Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Lauren Weedman, Paul Reiser, Adam Pally, Paul Weitz, Jon Gabrus
Director-screenwriter: Jeff Baena
Producers: Aubrey Plaza, Liz Destro
Executive producers: Matthew Shreder, James Andrew Felts, Ash Sarohia, William G. Santor, Andrew Chang-Sang, Fernando Loureiro, Roberto Vasconcellos, Carlos Cuscó, Emerson Machtus, Charles Bonan, Kim Leadford, Peter Pietrangeli, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman
Director of photography: Quyen Tran
Production designer: Susie Mancini
Costume designer: Natalie O’Brien
Editor: Ryan Brown
Composer: Dan Romer
Casting directors: Nicole Daniels, Courtney Bright
Sales: WME, CAA
Not rated, 90 minutes