In Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours,” a cheeky adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of novellas, “The Decameron,” the filmmaker makes an attempt at “nunsploitation,” that 1970s sub-genre of repressed sexuality and confused perversity. However, the casualness with which the film seems to have been made doesn’t quite allow it to cross that line. In fact, the movie is not quite anything at all — not quite a comedy, not quite an exploitation flick.
“The Little Hours” relies heavily on cognitive dissonance for its entertainment value. The cast is stacked with comedy stars we aren’t used to seeing in period pieces, outfitted in intentionally terrible wigs. We see Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), swathed in a heavy black habit, before we hear her, as she leads a donkey back to the convent. But as soon as she opens her mouth, the film’s gimmick reveals itself. She, and the other nuns, Genevra (Kate Micucci) and Alessandra (Alison Brie) speak in the slangy, obscenity-laden language of modern youth.
Life at the convent isn’t much fun, and these nuns just want to have fun. They take out some of their frustrations on the gardener, verbally abusing and assaulting him before he runs off. To replace him, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), brings on young hunk Massetto (Dave Franco), whom he finds in the woods. Massetto’s fleeing the wrath of his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), who is angry at him for sleeping with his wife, Francesca (Lauren Weedman). Massetto immediately becomes the target of the entire convent’s sexual energy — poor kid never stood a chance against those randy young nuns.
“The Little Hours” gets freaky, but it never feels truly subversive, or even that titillating. The lesbian scenes are little more than dorm room experimentation; the occult fertility ritual a joke. Perhaps, because everyone is operating at such a high level of irony, it’s impossible to take anything serious. The filmmaking doesn’t smooth those rough edges, either, and feels awkward and stilted. The natural world provides lovely scenery, but the camera remains rooted in place, utilizing retro,’70s-style long zooms, a nod at the genre’s era.
Delivering a sincere performance is Brie, who has a face made for a habit — she even bears a passing resemblance to Deborah Kerr, of that nuns-gone-wild masterpiece “Black Narcissus.” Fred Armisen, as a visiting bishop, delivers the film’s few real out loud laughs, especially during a tribunal after the young nuns partake in a wild belladonna and blood-soaked night.
For all the attempts at subversion — the swearing, Fernanda’s inexplicable and violent rage, the witchy lesbianism — the film resolves itself quickly, and conservatively. “The Little Hours” never really commits to being one thing or another. There aren’t any written jokes, but it treats its own genre as a punchline. Ultimately, you’re just left wondering what it is, and what the point of it all might be.
‘The Little Hours’
Rated: R, for graphic nudity, sexual content and language.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood