'The Little Hours' Review [2017 Fantasia Film Festival]

The limits of comedy can be as far-reaching as a talented filmmaker will allow them to be. As we've already seen this year at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival with Brigsby Bear, you can extract humour from virtually any scenario, even serious situations. Stretching the idea of how weird and unique you can get with comedy is taken to an even further extreme with The Little Hours, the latest from writer/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, Joshie). And while both those films (as well as Baena's collaboration with David O Russell on I Heart Huckabees) could be described as irreverent and odd in their own right, these qualifiers don’t even come close to describing the utter insanity and true nature of his latest film.

The Little Hours is a film about three 14th century nuns (played by Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci) living a simple life at their convent, but all struggling with their own demons and problems. Life becomes more complicated when their priest (John C. Reilly) brings home with him a man (Dave Franco) on the run from his own problems to be the convent’s new groundskeeper. What follows is an escalating series of lies, deceit, sin, debauchery and even a little witchcraft. Also co-starring in the largely improvised comedy are Molly Shannon, Jemima Kirke, Lauren Weedman, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Adam Pally, Paul Reiser and Jon Gabrus. It’s also based on an actual 14th century novella, albeit very loosely.

Period piece comedy isn’t exactly a novel concept in and of itself. Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, the Monty Python troupe, these guys made a career out of this kind of comedy and ostensibly perfected the genre back in the 90s, to the point where we practically never see anyone attempt to recreate that magic anymore, outside of a few bad ideas like Your Highness or A Million Ways to Die in the West. The Little Hours bucks that trend by leaning into the insanity and abandoning any veil of suspension in disbelief. The characters talk with their normal, mostly American accents. They swear, use slang, behave the same way they would if the film was set in the present, and that really helps to set the film apart.

But you can have all of that and still not pull it off. The Little Hours comes together by embracing its inherent weirdness, and running, not walking, with its biggest asset; the comedic prowess of its impressive cast. It’s very clear that major elements of this film are improvised as well, which is also at the source of some of the film’s best moments. Any time Fred Armisen is on screen is a delight, for example, and him reading off a list of sins he’s very obviously coming up with on the spot is a highlight of the movie. Franco is also great; his character has to pretend to be deaf and mute, which leads to some awkward but perfectly timed reactions. Everyone on this all-star cast brings something to the table, and together, they allow the film to come off more like a group of comedians doing really good improv, which is in large part why the film succeeds.

The Little Hours is exactly the kind of comedy we need at a time where the genre is facing somewhat of a lull, in terms of ideas and box office performance. It probably wasn’t a huge risk, but the fact that it got made at all is impressive and surprising, and as much as comedy is meant to make us laugh, impressing and surprising us are assets we don’t often see used in the genre anymore. The Little Hours gets 8 sexually frustrated nuns out of 10.