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Oh, Jeff Baena. Your premises are always so interesting, so fun, so full of potential, that they just set themselves up for mediocrity. The execution is botched and weirdly sloppy, and you can’t help but see a better movie, made in some other universe with a different script and cast, in the final cuts of his work. The guy’s previous movie, the zombie dramedy Life After Beth, had a killer premise, but wasn’t liked very much by those who saw it, and his new film, The Little Hours, suffers from a similar fate, though it’s actually not that bad. There’s so much potential in its arthouse-exploitation source material, and the wonderful cast that it has assembled, that you won’t start checking your watch until the 20-minute mark. And then after every time you laugh, which means you’ll be checking it a fair amount.

Based in part on “the first tale on the third day” from Boccaccio’s Decameron (a masterpiece completed in 1353 that would later go on to inspire Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), The Little Hours tells the story of three nuns at a convent run by the alcoholic Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and Sister Marea (an underused Molly Shannon): Alessandra (Alison Brie), who’s stuck at the convent until her father can work out the details of her dowry, Genevra (Kate Micucci), who’s a bit of a pious tattletale, and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), a rageaholic who’s hiding some pretty intense secrets from the rest of the convent. Their lives are completely shaken up when fugitive Massetto (Dave Franco) arrives at the convent, after fleeing from his Lord (Nick Offerman) and his wrath for fucking his wife. Posing as a deaf-mute, he works as a gardener for the nuns (the last one was assaulted by the trio mentioned above and quit), until straight-up lust consumes some of the sisters and truly crazy shit starts to happen.

There’s not really a weak link amongst the cast (though witch Jemima Kirke comes close), and everyone seems to have had one hell of a time making this movie. Reilly’s a standout, as he’s been in everything he’s been in this year so far, and Dave Franco keeps making a consistent case for why he deserves the title of “the funny one” when people talk about him and his brother. A good chunk of the early laughs in the film simply come from seeing these actors in period attire — the Brattle audience at the IFFB blew up when Fred Armisen arrived halfway through the film in an archbishop’s attire and Prince Valiant haircut — and while that’s serviceable, it’s hard not to want just a little bit more substance in a laugh. They’re mere laughs of recognition, and there’s the distinct possibility that the movie might be substantially more interesting on the second viewing, removed from the stunned audience, though there’s some issues that just can’t be fixed no matter what.

For starters, the nuns don’t do much, aside from the occasional bit of witchy intrigue on Plaza’s part or some misguided attempts at pathos for Brie. It really is admirable what Baena is trying to do here — portray women in history with the same character stylings and independence that we’re accustomed to today — but the either the text’s structure or poor pacing prevents it from truly excelling. The core trio isn’t given too much to do until 50 minutes in, and for a movie that wants us so desperately to humanize with our female leads, it doesn’t give them a lot of laugh lines outside of a couple of great peasant-harassment scenes early on. Much of the jovial and non-situational humor is reserved for the dudes, such as Franco and Reilly’s drunken chats and confessions, and Offerman’s monotone and gory monologuing, and the ladies are kind of an afterthought up until Baena unleashes Micucci in the third act. She’s fucking hilarious, and absolutely goes for broke near the end, smearing blood on her face and running around a witch ceremony bare-ass naked, screaming bloody murder at the assembled coven. It’s a truly fearless performance, and she wrings every last chuckle out of the audience there.

Perhaps the most delightful part of the movie filmmaking-wise comes early on, when Baena does his best to stick close to the styles and textures of nunsploitation and religious films from the ’60s and ’70s. There’s a ton of slow zoom-outs across landscapes and through windows, and it almost feels as if you’re watching a forgotten Zeffirelli film before one of the familiar faces shows up and drags you back to reality. He abandons this style midway through the movie for some handheld footage of the witch ceremony, and it’s a tremendous bummer that he doesn’t see it through (say what you will about Will Ferrell and company, but when they commit to a stylistic parody like, say, Casa de Mi Padre, they stick with it until the joke is belly-up on the side of the road).

And that sums up neatly the issue with The Little Hours: The follow-through just isn’t there, and the pacing, writing and filmmaking all show the signs of it. It’s a decently funny and clever film with a great cast, and will most likely be well worth the money you pay to see it when it hits theaters later this year, but it could have been so much more. It could have been truly memorable.

Independent Film Festival Boston runs from April 26 to May 3. Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus and @Vanyaland617 for updates throughout the fest.

 

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