An enjoyable comedy that wears a little too thin by the time it’s over.
The Little Hours proudly wears its influences on its sleeve, making them known from the moment the film begins. With long opening zooms into the Italian countryside and a top notch score by Dan Romer, The Little Hours looks and feels like a Monty Python sketch with the comedic tone and ambitions of a Mel Brooks parody. It’s by-and-large writer and director Jeff Baena’s most successful directorial outing to date – following the drab Life After Beth and unimpressive Joshy – even if it’s not nearly as funny, biting, or smart as the films it’s so clearly trying to emulate.
Set in 14th century Italy, The Little Hours follows the antics of a group of nuns living in a remote convent far away from any real semblance of civilization. Led by John C. Reilly’s laid-back, lovable Father Tommasso and Molly Shannon’s light hearted Mother Superior, the convent looks on the surface like any other might. What separates it from the rest, however, are the personalities of its three foul-mouthed nuns – Alessandra (Alison Brie), Genevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) – who jump at the chance to yell at and berate any unsuspecting passerby.
But when their favorite target – the convent’s groundskeeper – eventually quits due to the nuns’ constant physical and emotional attacks on him, the trio set their sights quickly on his replacement, Massetto (Dave Franco), a young man on the run from his vengeful master (Nick Offerman), hired by Father Tommasso to masquerade as a deaf-mute in an attempt to keep the nuns from bothering him too much. Unfortunately, Massetto’s apparent inability to hear them and talk back to them only makes the nuns that much more interested in him, as each attempt to try and have sex with them for their own personal, secret reasons.
That’s the basic plot of The Little Hours, which begins to feel increasingly aimless as time goes on, thanks in no small part to the fact that the film doesn’t really tell you what many of its characters even want. In fact, other than Massetto, the only nun whose ambitions or motives are laid out from the beginning of the film is Brie’s Alessandra, who dreams of marrying a local man and running away from the convent, but who is trapped there by her father’s (Paul Reiser) inability to raise enough money for a wedding dowry. She sees being with Massetto as a chance to have her loneliness cured, and is apparently blissfully unaware that Genevra and Fernanda each have a growing resentment towards her.
But while they’re the leads of the film, one of the biggest disappointments of The Little Hours is how little Plaza, Micucci, and Brie are able to do throughout it. Because each of the sisters are more often than not pawns in the film’s plot, they’re very rarely able to shine comedically, with each actress just turning out one-note performances of characters they’ve each played a dozen times before. Brie acts predictably adorable and innocent, while Micucci is the unsuspecting victim of Fernanda’s game-playing, with Plaza once again playing the bored, maniacal schemer that she’s become more or less known for at this point.
Thankfully, while the three lead actresses are wasted, Baena populates the rest of The Little Hours with talented veteran performers, each with the ability to turn even the blandest of jokes into comedy gold. Offerman applies his signature dry delivery to great effect as Lord Bruno, a violence-obsessed lord determined to track down and torture Massetto after catching him sleeping with his wife one night. His moments in the film are some of its absolute funniest, even if his total amount of screentime likely adds up to maybe five minutes in the end.
More than anyone else, Reilly is the film’s true saving grace, bringing his signature charm and lovability to the role of Father Tommasso, who is aware of the nun’s “pack mentality” but is either completely unable or uninterested in doing anything to actually stop it. Most of his scenes are shared with Franco’s Massetto and their late-night drinking sessions are like little pockets of breathless comedy in-between the film’s more convoluted and repetitious sequences with the nuns.
Fred Armisen also pops up near the end of the film – playing a typical Fred Armisen character but dressed in period clothing – and he luckily shows up just in time to be at the center of the film’s most hilarious sequence. He and the rest of the supporting cast members are what make The Little Hours work in the end, even when it feels like Baena may, more often than not, be interested in the least exciting aspects of it. As such, The Little Hours doesn’t ever do anything more with its one-note premise, nor does it ever show much of a desire to, making it feel like an overlong comedy sketch by the time it’s over. But if you do decide to check it out, Reilly, Armisen, and Offerman will likely make it feel like a worthwhile endeavor in the end.