The Little Hours (2017)

To date, I’ve been a huge fan of all three of Jeff Baena’s features as a director. I was even an unwitting devotee going as far back as his first writer’s credit on the required taste absurdist comedy I Huckabees. Besides consistently collaborating with Aubrey Plaza, however, there’s no solid pattern to his output as an auteur. The zom-com Life After Beth & the bachelor party from Hell black comedy Joshy have a vaguely similar dedication to bleak humor in the midst of a romantic fallout, but don’t resemble each other in the slightest in terms of genre, plot, or tone. With his latest film, The Little Hours,  Baena even leaves his usual bleakness behind for an entirely different kind of dark comedy altogether. Profiling the sex & violence pranksterism of nuns running wild in a Middle Ages convent, The Little Hours finds Baena at his leanest, funniest, and most visually beautiful. Not only is his latest film an unbelievably tight 90 minutes of blasphemous, hedonistic hilarity; it’s also a gorgeous indulgence in the grimy, sunlit beauty of 1970s Satanic horror & nunsploitation cinema. I swear Baena improves with every picture.

Aubrey Plaza, Allison Brie, and Kate Micucci star as a trio of “tough & violent” nuns bored out of their minds in a 14th Century convent. As a period piece, the movie makes several subtly played points about how young women without proper dowries were dumped into these religious institutions when their families became irritated with their presence at home & how class determined their place in the convents once admitted. Mostly, though, the film is a nonstop bacchanal reminiscent of the second half of Ken Russell’s The Devils or a sex comedy version of The Witch. Their lives are mostly an endless routine of dutiful prayer/domestic chores being interrupted by devious experiments with getting drunk, making out, flirting with black magic, and beating a poor farmer with his own lousy turnips. Their juvenile acts of depravity & vandalism become more focused with the introduction of a deaf, mute hottie played by Dave Franco, but the movie is mostly an episodic catalog of wild, vulgar nuns’ misbehavior. This slight, but eccentric dynamic works exceptionally well thanks to the immense comedic talent of the three leads, who rarely get as much freedom to cause havoc as they do here.

Based on one isolated section of the 14th Century text The Decameron, The Little Hours more or less lives up to the diminutive modifier of its title. Brevity is healthy for a comedy, though, and although the film is obviously informed by improv experimentation, it’s sharply edited down to its most bare essentials in a way more modern comedies could stand to be. At a lean 90 minutes and armed with the idyllic Garden of Eden sunshine of a sexed-up European “art film” (softcore porno) of the hippy-dippy Satanic psychedelia era, The Little Hours might just be both the best traditional comedy and the best period piece I’ve seen all year. I especially appreciated the opportunity it affords Micucci, who is usually cast as a reserved nerd, to run absolutely feral among her more seasoned vets of chaos castmates. It’s also wonderful to see Baena let loose from his usual high-concept, emotionally dour black comedies to deliver something much more unashamedly fun & light on its feet. As always, I look forward to whatever unexpected project he’ll deliver next, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard or been as visually in awe of his work as I was with this release.

-Brandon Ledet

Joshy (2016)

fourstar

If I were feeling especially lazy, I would substitute writing a full review for Joshy with simply taking a screenshot of its IMDb page with some MS Paint exclamation points added for effect. Jenny Slate! Aubrey Plaza! Brett Gelman! Thomas Middleditch! The dude who made Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry)! A dark comedy about a devastatingly depressing weekend getaway, Joshy is stuffed to the gills with niche comedians and always-welcome performers. Even in the final twenty minutes I found myself exclaiming, “I can’t believe they’re in this too!” as new characters entered the frame. What was even more surprising & rewarding than any of the casting choices, however, was the realization that I’d become a fan of the film’s writer-director, Jeff Baena, without even realizing it. Apparently, Baena co-wrote I ♥ Huckabees & helmed his debut feature in the romantic horror comedy Life After Beth, two films I will passionately defend as being far better than their reputations. Just Gary Marshall dropping by as a zombie for a brief cameo was enough to land Life After Beth on my Best of 2014 list and the existential absurdism of Huckabees makes for my favorite David O. Russell film to date, despite that work’s generally divisive reception. After also taking delight in the gleefully bleak Joshy, I can comfortably say that I’m fully sold on Baena as a filmmaker. Only three projects into his career I’m going to count myself among his audience for life.

Five men commemorate an abruptly-ended engagement by honoring a reservation for the bachelor party at a remote cabin in California wine country. As you can probably guess, this situation quickly devolves into my beloved Party Out of Bounds subgenre, ranking up there with High-Rise, The Invitation, and A Bigger Splash as one of my favorite examples of that specific narrative structure I saw all last year. Caught between his friends’ wildly varied ideas of a good time (typified by reckless substance abuse or a Cones of Dunshire-style fantasy role playing game) the would-be bachelor Joshy  (Middleditch) quietly suffers while the world around him loudly crumbles. Joshy has the most readily recognizable reasons to be an emotional wreck, but all of his male compatriots, from the most bombastic bros to the most neurotic wet blankets, are in just as bad of a state. Joshy is first & foremost a film about men who do not comprehend how to deal with their emotions in a productive or honest way. They play & party their way around any direct engagement with their inner turmoil, filling their days with toy guns, drugs, and frivolous contact with a group of women having their own “weird party thing” nearby, all while avoiding any mention of the dark clouds of depression, alcoholism, and suicide that loom over them. At one point, a character even shouts, “It’s not okay to be sad!” to drive the point home. I don’t know if this speaks more about my personal taste or the immense talent of the cast, but this situation actually makes for some of the most hilarious cinematic moments of 2016 for me. Joshy traps itself under immense emotional pressure and the resulting comedy that explodes from that container had me screaming with laughter.

I suppose at first glance Joshy might come off as the clean cut indies & “mumblecore” aftershocks of filmmakers like the Duplass Bros (whom I personally dig) & Joe Swanberg (who appears in a cameo) and it’s possible that being able to enjoy that cinematic style is essential to appreciating this low-key indulgence in gallows humor. The closest comparison point I can conjure for it, though, is the work of Sleeping With Other People director Leslye Headland, particularly her film Bachelorette. Headland & Baena are both quietly trafficking in a highly specific, deeply affecting mode of caustic, ice bath humor. Their work is currently flying under the radar in terms of wide critical recognition, but I’m floored by how much they’ve been able to accomplish without making grand, sweeping maneuvers. Joshy is a cheap, quiet indie comedy about a few middle aged men who are having an awful time at a party that should have ended before it started. Baena managed to turn that scenario into both a painful exploration about how traditional masculinity leaves people ill-equipped to deal with emotions in a healthy, honest way and one of the funniest situational comedies of the year. I find that balance very impressive and I’m dying to see what he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet