The Little Hours (2017)

Written and directed by: Jeff Baena

The_Little_Hours_posterIf you put popular comic actors in a nunnery, how long can they keep up the image of propriety? That’s the premise of The Little Hours, and it does not take long to unravel. A minute or two into the film a chain of f-bombs spews from the mouth of Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Other reviewers have described the film in a mildly-positive light, calling it a work that does a respectable job of sustaining itself on one joke (its premise) for its short-ish runtime.

There is an unquestionable charm to the film. It opens to minstrel music, rustic countryside and credits with medieval-stylized font. While I’m sure that historians could find ways to tear the film’s aesthetic apart, The Little Hours does a reasonably good job of convincing viewers they are truly watching a medieval story. The script further contributes to this allusion: while its scenes are predominantly wacky, there are moments, such as when the nuns take communion, that comedy takes a back seat to maintaining a degree of historical realism.

While critics may be right in calling out The Little Hours’ low-brow humour, the film’s unique brand of “realism” makes it a worthy watch. The Little Hours in fact, at times, shares a tone with What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi’s critically acclaimed Vampire mockumentary. Both films depict smut and gore, yet rather than relying on the cheap thrills, treat audiences to mild-mannered characters mundanely navigating their universe. For example, when Father Tommasso (John C. Reily) drunkenly threatens Massetto, the humors comes not from his drunkenness, nor even from the idea that a priest is drunk, but rather his distress over having tipped his cart full of embroidery and having to awkwardly dry its contents by a rocky stream. The Little Hours’s supporting cast also includes Nick Offerman as a vengeful warlord who’s defining characteristic is not his military might but his ability to provoke a barrage of sarcasm from his wife; and Fred Armisan as a bishop who strictly enforces Catholic doctrine, with just enough doubt in his voice to expose the absurdity of his judgement. Reilly and Molly Shannon feature as a priest and mother superior who are essentially cool parents: they don the garb and fill the function of authority without really policing the behaviour to their flock.

The three main nuns, meanwhile, are played by a good spectrum of personalities. Sister Alessandra (Allison Brie) is introduced in a moment of sadness, playing a straight-woman of sorts who nevertheless has her share of comedic, awkward scenes. Plaza and Kate Micucci (as Sister Genevra) revive their respective deadpan-goth and awkwardly-innocent personas from Parks and Recreation and Garfunkel and Oates. While Micucci’s type fits right-in in a nunnery comedy, Plaza’s tendency for 4th wall-breaking-glances, at times, feels a bit out of place. On the other hand, the ultimate twist with Plaza’s character is a good one, and film viewers can appreciate Sister Fernanda as April Ludgate on steroids.

Ultimately The Little Hours does fall a bit short of What We Do in the Shadows. This is largely because The Little Hours opts to have a conventional story arc. After a solid first half, it reaches its apex with a build up of sexually-explicit chaos, followed by reconciliation and, ultimately, hero(in)ism. This narrative approach arguably costs the film a few jokes. Nevertheless, the film provides plenty to laugh at it via its collection of personalities, its period humor, and occasionally turns to the absurd. If you are not put off by vulgarity, and are curious to see nuns who show that Maria is not a problem whatsoever, The Little Hours is absolutely worth seeing.

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The Sunshine Boys (1975)

DirectedSunshine_boys.jpeg by: Herbert Ross. Written by: Neil Simon

They’re perfect for each other and they can’t stand each other: that’s the premise of Neil Simon’s comedic play The Sunshine Boys. The 1975 film version is remembered for the performances of its stars Walter Matthau and George Burns as two Vaudeville Comedians, reuniting for a TV special. Burns, aged 79, won an Oscar for his performance, re-launching a career that would last until his death at the age of 100.

The film was updated somewhat from the play, featuring opening scenes about Willie Clark’s (Matthau) audition for a Frumpy’s potato chips commercial. The appeal of The Sunshine Boys is its well-written humour about how humour is made. In the audition scenes, we laugh at two actors’ attempts to do intentionally-over-the-top acting for the chips commercial. Shortly thereafter, Clark explains-to-excess what makes words funny (he blames his poor audition on “Frumpy’s not being a funny word).

The film like the play, unfortunately peaks a bit too early. Willie Clark, anxious about his mortality and nostalgic for an acting career that he has grown sick of, engages in ridiculous antics. His counterpart, Al Lewis (Burns), is hard of hearing and irritable in his own right, but is rather pedestrian in comparison to Clark. Despite being named for a duo, The Sunshine Boys, is essentially Clark’s story, with Lewis serving as a sort-of-straight man.

The problem with this structure is not that having a straight man is a bad thing, but rather that by the time Lewis is introduced into the story, the film already has an established straight-man: Clark’s nephew and agent, Ben (Richard Benjamin). Ben functions as a more effective straight-man than Lewis. Ben’s straight-man patiently attempts to engage with Clark’s absurdity. Lewis, however, is in-conflict with Clark, meaning rather than engaging with and subsequently highlighting Clark’s absurdity, he fights it with his own irateness. Lewis’ persona thus sits in an awkward middleground: he is too finicky to be the straight-man, but finicky enough to be absurd.

The Sunshine Boys’ humor relies on exploiting the formula of pairing a straight man (Ben) with a ridiculous one (Clark). The comedy stems from the straight man having to bear the burden of his companion’s absurdity, while the companion, being absurd, cannot appreciate the consequences of his actions. This formula is seen, for instance, in the paring of Sheldon and Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, David and Woody in Nebraska, and Michael Bluth and his entire family in Arrested Development. While this technique can produce hilarity, it can at times feel like a bit of a short cut. In Nebraska, I wondered how David’s straight-man-level-headedness could exist in a world entirely populated by absurd figures. Straight-men can seem more like tools than real characters: they represent what the “reasonable viewer” wants to see in a “reasonable” person, rather than what a person in that character’s situation would actually be like. Ben, however, cannot be subject to this critique, for while he absolutely serves the function of a straight-man, he is a flawed character in his own right. Ben is not simply a nephew doing his uncle a favour. He’s an agent looking to establish himself, and this means over-investing in the seemingly doomed project of reuniting a comedy duo whose members are hopelessly at odds. Ben is simultaneously the voice of reasonability, and mildly-swindling travelling salesman trying to sell to old men on a reunion that they are fated to ruin.

The Sunshine Boys is an enjoyable comedic work, and I have no wish to dispute its status as a classic. It nonetheless fails to live up to the potential that exists within its own confines: the potential to use Ben’s character just a bit more, rather than over-estimating the potential of the film’s titular comedy duo.