By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 8, 2017)
So when was the last time you saw a “ribald romp” at the multiplex? For that matter, when’s the last time you can even remember reading a film review that used descriptive phrases like “ribald romp”? How about “bawdy period piece”? Or “saucy yarn” (my favorite). I’m sure that readers of a certain age remember the cheekiest bodice-ripper of them all, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) which ignited a slew of imitators like The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders. Lock Up Your Daughters, Joseph Andrews, et.al.
A close cousin is the costume spoof; beginning with The Court Jester (1955), which was the antecedent to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Princess Bride, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. While all four films are genre parodies, the latter three are products of a more modern post-ironic sensibility (in contrast to The Court Jester, which is simply goofy fun). Which brings us to the age of the meta-ironic costume spoof, perhaps best represented by the wonderfully demented Comedy Central series Another Period (a clever mashup of Keeping Up With The Kardashians with Downton Abbey).
Fans of Another Period will likely be the most receptive audience for Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, an irreverent, somewhat uneven, and occasionally hilarious reworking of The Decameron. For those unfamiliar, The Decameron (as I just learned on Wiki, for I am a Philistine), is a collection of novellas by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, structured as a frame story containing 100 tales. Obviously, all 100 tales are not contained within the film’s 90-minute frame (it would pose an interesting challenge).
So for out of what one assumes to be sheer practicality, Baena narrows it down to the one about the horny young nuns (those easily offended should probably leave the room now). Anyway, this bawdy period piece is a saucy yarn concerning three young nuns (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci) who deal with their raging hormones and the crushing boredom of covenant life by taking out their frustrations on the hapless groundskeeper. “Why are you looking at us, you fucking pervert?” they scream at him (as medieval nuns do). One day, they gang up and poke him with sticks, sending him fleeing.
The resident Father (John C. Reilly) hires a hunky replacement (Dave Franco), a servant seeking asylum after getting caught in flagrante delicto with his lord’s lady. The Father advises the servant that it would be best if he posed as a deaf-mute (so as not to tempt the nuns into breaking their vows of chastity). You know where this story is heading, right?
What ensues is a cross between The Trouble With Angels with, erm, Ken Russell’s The Devils. The film is far from a classic, but the cast (also including Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman and Paul Reiser) is fun, and Quyen Tran’s cinematography is lush. So if you seek asylum from the summer movie onslaught of pirates, comic book characters and aliens, the solution is obvious: get thee to a nunnery!
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Alas, they don’t make perfect period romps like this one anymore: