About 30 minutes into The Little Hours, the new movie from writer and director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth), it began to feel like an extended skit from Saturday Night Live.
Based on stories from The Decameron, the film tells the story of a young male servant on the run from his master who is taken in at a convent full of eccentric nuns. Starring popular names in comedy including Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Nick Offerman, and more, the film assembles as cast that has no trouble creating laughs. But much like an SNL skit, the film is an uneven, and at times unconvincing, attempt to turn a funny concept into a 90-minute movie.
The movie derives its comedy from the contrast of the story’s setting – a 14th century convent full of nuns – with modern language and crass humor. In one of the first scenes of the film, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci scream profanities at an old man who wishes them a nice day, sending the audience into huge laughs.
This moment successfully capitalizes on the movie’s anachronistic qualities; in other words, it makes the audience laugh by contrasting how the audience expects nuns to behave against their offbeat, modernized depiction.
Unfortunately, what works in the beginning of the film succeeds with diminishing returns as the movie plays out over the next 90 minutes.
Following my screening of the movie, a Q&A with cast members Kate Micucci, Molly Shannon, and Lauren Weedman revealed the process of how The Little Hours went from concept to execution. Micucci explained that the movie never had a formally written script.
She said they were working from a 30-page outline that Jeff Baena had written. That outline mapped out the scenes they needed, but did not provide much or any written dialogue. This allowed the actors to improvise and experiment while filming. This element is key to understanding both the strengths and weaknesses of a movie like The Little Hours.
When asked about the atmosphere during filming, Molly Shannon explained that they did not have very long to shoot the movie. As a result, scenes were shot very quickly and they did not spend as much time per scene like she was accustomed to during movies that use lots of improvisation.
Lauren Weedman chimed in to say that they often were not sure if they Baena got what he needed from them in the scene. “But Jeff had the vision for the film, so we trusted his judgment,” Shannon stated.
Consequently, The Little Hours is largely uneven in terms of quality. For every joke that lands with the audience, there are two more that miss. It’s a movie driven by the talent of those involved, rather than the ingenuity of the concept. Even at 90 minutes, the movie often feels like its treading water to keep the audience entertained.
Listening to the cast talk after the movie, it’s clear that they had a ton of fun during filming. Both Weedman and Micucci told stories of how fun Nick Offerman was on set. According to Weedman, “Nick knew so much about the time period, I mean, he really did his research.”
Molly Shannon said her favorite scene to film was with Fred Armisen: “The scene in the church at the end of the movie was so fun. I wish more of it had made it in the movie,” she said.
She has a point. Listening to the cast talk about The Little Hours made it sound like a lot more fun than the movie itself. It’s clear that the cast had a lot of fun shooting on location in Italy and the assembled talent worked really well together. If only more of that fun and charm had made its way into the movie.
Despite the lows of the film, the stand out is Kate Micucci. She brings an effortless sense of humor to the film that is a wonderful blend of charming and zany. She’s an underdog, an outsider, and very easy to root for. She’s given some of the funniest gags in the movie and while some actors feel underused – Molly Shannon and Aubrey Plaza in particular – Micucci is used perfectly; her wide eyes and small frame carry huge laughs.
It is Micucci’s performance, combined with the sheer talent of the rest of the cast that make The Little Hours an entertaining watch, despite its comedic inconsistency.