Dueling images of Catholic nuns portray either holier-than-thou punishers in habits or hippie types with acoustic guitars, like the postulant Maria in The Sound of Music. Both stereotypes obscure the fact that, in real life, a lot of nuns are just … kind of weird. At one of the many Catholic campouts I once was required to attend, I first had the epiphany that some may have started out as social outcasts looking for a hideaway from judgment by the culture at large. There, one of the sisters went around every morning, sweeping up all the socks and underwear we’d left on the floor of our cabin, so she could boil them and sell them at rummage sales. “They’re mine now!” she cackled. But when a brave girl questioned her, the nun shyly backed away and never made eye contact with us again.
Writer-director Jeff Baena (I Heart Huckabees, Life After Beth), in his lighthearted Medieval nun-sploitation comedy, The Little Hours, depicts these socially rejected sisters as they may really have been, using modern-day language but also Boccaccio’s The Decameron as source text. The film follows three young women — Allesandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Ginevra (Kate Micucci) — as they try to fill up hour after boring hour with anything, leading to much gossip, bickering and a dabbling in of witchcraft. What’s that the Bible says about idle hands?
Throughout the film, crystal-blue skies frame a picturesque landscape of rolling green hills and the clean beige stucco of the abbey where the nuns reside — immensely peaceful scenes Baena creates just so he can muck them up. When the convent’s handyman dares to smile at them, one of the women screeches, “Fuck you, don’t look at us!” These nuns are aggro, none more than Fernanda, who takes great joy in physically intimidating men. When the convent’s humdrum day is interrupted by an alluring manservant (Dave Franco) escaping the wrath of a jealous husband (Nick Offerman), Fernanda puts an ax to the manservant’s throat, her face millimeters away from his as she bellows into his ear, “Who the fuck are youuuuuuuuuu?”
Though the F-bombs wear a little thin, laughs do come at the expense of Offerman’s Lord Bruno and Lauren Weedman, who plays his wife. Bruno dons a voluminous, frizzy bowl cut and yacks on and on about how the Guelfs killed his family, always over-pronouncing “Guelf” — god, it’s a funny word. The comedy here isn’t what you’d call highbrow. When the bumbling Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) attempts to define “sodomy,” sussing out whether it’s anal sex or oral sex, he’s a little stumped: “Sodomy is lots of different things,” he says, unsure (and piss-drunk).
The Little Hours shares more than a small helping of sincerity with I Heart Huckabees, which Baena co-wrote with David O. Russell. The film follows up its punch lines with philosophical discussions untangling why people behave so absurdly. The developing friendship among the sparring nuns is actually sweet to watch unfold, as is the romantic relationship between Tommasso and Mother Superior (Molly Shannon). This isn’t a laugh-a-minute movie; it’s more a succession of snickers, punctuated by genuine emotion. We’re watching some serious weirdos try to connect — in a medieval nunnery.