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Nun of the Above

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Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
The Little Hours (2017)

Watching Aubrey Plaza shout at people ranks high on my personal list of reasons to turn out for movies, only slightly behind the joys of Tracy Letts being cruel and vindictive. In "The Little Hours" she shouts and swears like a stevedore, a raucous deadpan dynamo restrained by a 14th century nun's habit and wimple in the same way that a tin can constrains an atom bomb. Jeff Baena's film transfers a bunch of thoroughly modern comics — Ms. Plaza, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Kate Micucci, several others — to Middle Ages Tuscany with their vocal patterns and wry exasperations intact, for a tale sliced out of Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron" that drips with frustrated desire and the sins of the flesh. Hit or miss, it's at least a reminder that American sex comedies weren't always modern-dress bosses and bridesmaids, or offcuts from the Judd Apatow factory.

The modernity, plus the presence of a Franco brother (Dave), makes "The Little Hours" sound like a relative of "Your Highness"; but Mr. Baena and Ms. Plaza — who also produces — do without scatology and dick jokes in favor of authentic absurdity and farce. A suitably unlikely course of events compels the perpetually studly Massetto (Mr. Franco) to hide out in a convent pretending to be a deaf mute laborer, hired by the mildly distracted Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Marea (Ms. Shannon, apparently gliding on concealed castors). Massetto and any other males wandering into the cross-hairs are berated endlessly by nuns Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Ms. Plaza) and Ginevra (Ms. Micucci), their own repressions boiling over into rampant horniness, attempts at deviance and a spot of witchcraft. Mr. Franco and Mr. Reilly face these tirades manfully, rocking backwards just slightly in the gale.

American film comedies are drowning in meta-commentary and genre nostalgia, neither of which really apply here, although the mere sight of horny nuns is an immediate nudge in the ribs from the ghost of Ken Russell just as funny nuns invoke John Landis. (Joe Swanberg gets a thanks, and his suburban discomforts are in here too; start free-associating with the film and you might never stop.) The real nostalgia on show may just be for the days when comedies were less ironic about their dirty jokes, and didn't feel the need to edit at a hundred miles per hour. One visual aside is timed to the pace of a turtle meandering across the screen, casual as you like. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen walked this way long ago; and if their historical farces were entirely about modern life and its many paranoias, maybe this one wants to separate the simple joy of horniness from all its current baggage and decriminalize the carnal. Ms. Plaza, criminal in the best sense, glares at the repressed world around her as if she's preparing to pounce out of it altogether and land in the seat next to you.

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