Writer-director Jeff Baena had a nutty idea, the kind most people talk themselves out of. How about a comedy about three nuns living in a convent in 1347? That sounds safe, doesn’t it? Everybody’s making movies like that, right?
Well, maybe they will be after “The Little Hours,” because this is one of the funniest movies of the year.
It’s based on Boccaccio’s “Decameron,” but the dialogue is entirely modern, so right away the clash between the setting and the sensibility creates comedy. In the opening scene, the groundskeeper says hello to three nuns, and they explode on him in a torrent of 21st-century style cursing.
It’s the moment that defines Baena’s approach, which combines an uncompromising commitment to the characters’ 14th-century circumstances while giving them entirely modern attitudes.
There’s Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), scary and always ready to fly into a rage. There’s Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), who keeps hoping her father will find her a husband. And there’s Sister Genevra (Kate Micucci), who is always looking to inform on the other sisters.
They wear their habits and walk their donkeys and try to liven up the monotony by venting gossip and hostility.
Some novelty comes into their lives with the arrival a new workman, Massetto (Dave Franco), who is on the run from a sadistic and half-demented lord. The village priest brings Massetto into the convent, but knowing how extreme and violent the sisters can be, he tells Massetto to pose as a deaf mute.
Not having to speak to the women keeps him safe, but creates another problem. Because the women believe he can’t tell anybody anything, they feel free to have sex with him without fear of recrimination.
Baena combines a zany comic vision with a rare control of tone. Though very funny, “The Little Hours” remains low-key and subtle in its effects. There’s no winking or nudging, no straining for laughs. Baena devised the material, and he trusts it.
For example, when we meet the lord, played by Nick Offerman, he’s talking at a dinner table in the most reasonable way about some Florentine conspiracy that’s obsessing him. It takes about a full minute to realize that he’s crazy.
Likewise, Fred Armisen has a funny turn as the visiting bishop, who is bewildered and appalled by the goings on at the convent. But his reactions are very much within the movie’s comic lexicon, more nonplussed than outraged.
This uniformity of tone is especially impressive when we find out that most of the dialogue was improvised, based on a detailed outline. Baena was able to take what the actors gave him and to benefit from their inspiration, while keeping a tight control of the overall conception.
So despite all the comic influences, “The Little Hours” seems to speak with one voice.
The women are terrific, all distinctly drawn and acted with serious comic commitment, with Aubrey Plaza’s depiction of dead-eyed amorality a particular highlight. Like the rest of the cast, Plaza never once telegraphs that she is in on the joke, and that makes it funnier.
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The Little Hours
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Jeff Baena
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, Dave Franco
Rated: R (graphic nudity, sexual content, strong language)
Running time: 90 min.