Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Little Hours: EIFF Review

For our second EIFF review, I decided to check out Dave Franco's bawdy medieval sex-comedy starring a hoard of comic talent including Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, and Fred Armisten!

Following in the lofty footsteps of Monty Python, Jeff Baena directs this foul-mouthed, and rib-achingly risqué take on Boccaccio’s The Decameron to riotous results.

The year is 1347.

Tone setting...
Dave Franco stars as Massetto – a young servant to Nick Offerman’s Lord Bruno. After being caught in the act with Bruno’s wife (Lauren Weedman), he strikes gold when a drunk preacher from a local convent (John C Reilly) offers him a job in return for some help. The nuns in residence (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci), however, have other plans – especially in the romance department.

Despite providing a mostly predictable line of narrative, there are a few surprises to be had here and there – especially in the development of Aubrey Plaza’s Fernanda; who turns out to be more of a complex character than it would seem at the outset. Said surprises usually involve copious nudity; but the unhinged nature of these scenes helps to keep the production reasonably unique.

In fact, speaking of characters, the supporting cast on show is incredibly strong. Fred Armisten’s camp and permanently incredulous bishop is worth the admission price alone – scolding and shouting his way through the nunnery with a biblical vengeance. And each of our main, erm, ‘heroes’, have very distinct identities: unlike Cleese and Co’s masterpiece, the nuns in The Little Hours are not allowed to become a single monolithic menace (although they are indeed prone to group violence). Instead, their individual interests and circumstances bubble to the surface repeatedly; allowing us to draw our own conclusions over who’s respectable and who’s playing foul.

Fred Armisten in his hilarious role
The comedy here is the very definition of low-brow: veering from the most basic impulses of slapstic, to the raunchy humour of modern studio comedy, and even some absurdism (a bizarre sight-gag revolves around a turtle with a candle on its back). At times, it bites rather close to the bone on a few sensitive topics – I’m a firm believer in being able to make jokes about any subject; but some may take offense. Despite the low blows, The Little Hours is mostly gut-bustingly hilarious; with the jokes sending usually-sullen critics into bouts of hysterical laughter in the screening I attended – which has to be a good sign.

Quyen Tran shoots the film with minimal sheen and artifice – lending the finished product the atmosphere of those legendary Python movies: homemade, somewhat improvised, and bizarrely naturalistic. Likewise, Dan Romer’s score sustains the medieval theme without a hint of modernity (at one point, the drunken nuns start belting out a hymn as if it’s a Top 40 song). Combined with the A-list cast and the pretty graphic content at times, The Little Hours takes on a surreal edge that permeates its entire runtime. This is aided by the set design which, of course, takes place in ancient castles and churches which have obviously been unlived in for centuries (why do medieval-themed movies always do that?).

The Nuns in action
Given the limited invention beyond the initial gimmick of nuns saying ‘fuck’, Baena is right to keep the action short at a mere 90 minutes – however, even at this length, The Little Hours begins to grate slightly in its final act. Although consistently trashy, the sheer volume and quality of jokes that land in the first 2/3 of the screenplay set up high expectations for what eventually turns out to be an overly saccharine and sentimental end-piece.

At the end of the day, The Little Hours is raunchy, edgy, and very very funny. It’s also surprisingly fresh, despite the fact I’ve mentioned Monty Python in this review 3 times. It’s filled with excellent performances from top-tier comic actors; and, despite a final act slump, flies by at a mere 90 minutes. If you’re looking for something slightly off the beaten track, but that’s still a real crowd-pleaser, this is a sure-fire bet. 
The Little Hours gets 4 stars!

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