Movie Review: The Middle Ages curse, bump and grind all the way through “The Little Hours”

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Almost a millennium has passed since Medieval manuscripts codified a “lusty wench,” and Aubrey Plaza has become that archetype personified.

Sleepy-eyed, foul-mouthed and carnality incarnate, whatever TV (“Legion,” “Parks & Rec”) has found for her to do, the movies (“Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates”) have her perfectly pigeon-holed. And yeah, she could make that phrase sound dirty without even trying.

So it is no stretch at all to see Plaza as a profane, promiscuous Middle Ages nun in a film based on Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” The Italian, and his English contemporary Geoffrey Chaucer, could have had her in mind in composing their novelettes — dirty interludes in the first works history declares are modern fiction.

“The Little Hours” is a comically-bastardized adaptation of a couple of bawdy tales from “The Decameron,” and Plaza — as producer and the film’s anchor-tart, Sister Fernanda — holds this unholy romp together.

You don’t wish the nuns in this 14th century convent “a nice day” without hearing about it. Sister Fernanda leads a screeching, screaming and pummeling Greek chorus of cursing. Sister Ginerva (Kate Micucci) is in her thrall. Novitiate Alessandra (Allison Brie) is new, so she joins in to fit in.

They’re tough broads in a sweet spirited convent, presided over by kindly Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and a quite-tolerant Mother Superior (Molly Shannon). But their abuse chases off the convent gardener/handyman (“About a Boy” director Paul Weitz). And if the sisters are to have time to do the elaborate embroidery that the priest sells to support them, if they’re to have more than turnips to eat, they’ll need a replacement.

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Fortunately, there’s a lusty manservant (Dave Franco) on the run from his murderous master (Nick Offerman) who needs a place to lay low. Father Tommasso gives Massetto shelter, tells him to feign being a deaf-mute, and hopes he’ll keep his mitts off the nuns.

Um hum.

Alessandra, waiting for her father (Paul Reiser) to arrange a marriage, despairs that “There’s no hope in the world!” to the hunk who can’t hear her, or protest when she drapes herself over him. And the other nuns, no matter which way they swing, long to taste that forbidden Franco fruit.

Lots of “Bless me Father, for I have had IMPURE thoughts” confessions ensue.

The characters are distinct, if broadly drawn, with Aubrey, Micucci, Reilly and Franco making the strongest impressions.

But writer-director Jeff Baena stages everything in first-year film school simplicity, and the verdant Italian settings have a “shot on a camcorder for Youtube” quality about them.

Truth be told, this plays like an extended comic sketch, which in all fairness is all many of the “Canterbury Tales” and their Italian “Decameron” cousins amount to.

And once you’ve heard Plaza launch into her colorful vocabulary with gusto once or twice, the shock of nuns cussing and fornicating in a period piece wears off.

Throw in witch rituals, nudity and a disapproving bishop (Fred Armisen) and you still can’t get over the notion that this was a clever way to finance a paid vacation in Italy to this tightly-interconnected crew. Franco and Brie are married, Weitz directed Reilly in “The Vampire’s Assistant,” Shannon and Reilly go back to “Year of the Dog,” Plaza and Offerman were “Parks & Rec” castmates, and so on.

But I was pleasantly surprised at how malleable the material was, how much of Boccaccio makes it past the anachronistic cursing and what not.

And simple plotting or not, there’s still something hilarious in that rooster loose in the henhouse scenario. See “The Beguiled” for proof of that. Here, at least, the laughs are intentional.

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MPAA Rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content and language

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Allison Brie, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman.

Credits: Written and directed by Jeff Baena, based on “The Decameron” by Giovanni Boccaccio. A Gunpowder & Sky release.

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