The two best things in The Little Hours, among many, many good ones, are Aubrey Plaza’s provocations and Dave Franco’s reactions. The latter plays a peasant who flees his manor after being caught in a tryst with its horny chatelaine. He takes refuge at a convent, where he quenches the thirst of its repressed residents. Cloaked in her habit, Plaza has the enigmatic glare of a Madonna—seething at a distance. The second she’s wrested from a moment of reflection, she becomes fiercely present and goes medieval. If Franco resembles a work of art, it’s because he’s ripped like the cover of a paperback. He has the four-pack of a Fabio and eyes that are equal parts amused and bemused by the attention that endowment brings.
Taking off from a 14th-century farce by Boccaccio, Jeff Baena’s direction and Quyen Tran’s photography stick to the period, continuously refreshing the joke: the dialogue and performances are profanely contemporary. The director’s screenplay eschews slang and modern references, so the central anachronism is the premise itself: that nuns in a convent would have all the itches and urges of bunkmates at a summer camp, their superiors no closer to God than a counselor-in-training. Blasphemy is just an ancestor of teen angst; torture a detention; and fornication a broken curfew.
If the movie itself is blasphemous, it is because it assumes that those who were drawn to the monastic life weren’t all saints; many weren’t drawn at all, but pulled in like workers consigned to middle management. (Alison Brie plays a preppy nun who’s stranded in celibacy because her dad—Paul Reiser in a nifty cameo—bribes the Church with donations. Later on, Fred Armisen shows up as the frazzled bureaucrat who accepts the kickbacks.) But that is the extent of the clerical satire. Mostly, it’s carnal mischief—the kind of vibe that used to be called “naughty” by people who don’t get out much—with a pace that rolls like the Tuscan pastures, and leisurely performances from comedic actors at the top of their game.
That leisureliness pays off. Though these medieval characters exhibit modern neuroses, they enact a structure that predates Shakespeare and wards off real-world problems. This functions like a safety net; one can breathe a sigh of relief and take the happy endings for granted. John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon (a little underused, but subtly eccentric) give ecclesiastic authority figures a friendly face, in what must be the answer to the Vatican’s brand-management prayers. A more blistering version of this material might have pushed Reilly’s hiccupy tippling into full-blown lechery, but the filmmakers had the grace to know that a pedophile priest would not only violate his Falstaffy kindness but also commit the deadly sin of making an easy joke. In a world where witches are as harmless as mall goths, and the only sexual abuse is toward a man who’s more-or-less okay with it, nothing short of bubonic plague could spoil the fun.