Any film based on a classic book published in the 14th century promises to be the season’s dullest affair, but “The Little Hours” is a wry delight.
“The Little Hours” is inspired by tales from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” which is full of sex and humor.
Writer-director Jeff Baena maintains a period setting, but does not shy away from improprieties or impoliteness.
In an early scene, three nuns unleash a barrage of f-bombs and s-words at a poor gardener who makes the mistake of smiling at them.
In 1347, in Garfagnana (an area in Tuscany today), these nuns go about their day-to-day business in a little countryside convent.
As it begins, Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza, who also produced), brings back a mule that has supposedly escaped. Meanwhile, pretty, blue-eyed Alessandra (Alison Brie) hopes to be rescued by any potential suitors.
Elsewhere, a nobleman’s servant, Massetto (Dave Franco), has been caught sleeping with his boss’ wife and runs for his life.
He meets up with and helps a drunken Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who oversees the convent.
Massetto agrees to become the convent’s handyman, but he must pretend to be a deaf-mute.
The nuns, including the goofily naïve Genevra (Kate Micucci), try to seduce poor Massetto. Much lustiness follows.
Molly Shannon and Nick Offerman co-star, but, as he did in the recent “Band Aid,” Fred Armisen steals the movie out from under everybody in a small role; here he’s a bishop who arrives to set things straight.
Director Baena worked with most of this cast before, especially on his low-key zombie comedy “Life After Beth.” He exhibits confidence with many types of humor, from crazy to dry, molding all into a comfortable fit.
Though appropriately rambunctious at times, “The Little Hours” dials back on anything slapsticky, becoming so deadpan that it, too, might actually be zombified.
It’s the kind of movie that may not elicit many laughs on a first viewing, but whose memory could later cause unexpected, sudden guffaws.
Already, Armisen chastising Plaza — “Are you rolling your eyes at me?” — is one for the books.
Certainly the film’s proper-looking sets and costumes help, all the way down to Alessandra’s pretty embroidery work.
The characters’ bad behavior within these sedate settings is a rich source of humor. (It might be a distant cousin of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”)
Although it’s a bit light to be called a masterpiece, for viewers of a certain type of humor, “The Little Hours” may be habit-forming.
The Little Hours
Starring Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly
Written and directed by Jeff Baena
Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes