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Sex is no laughing matter to this indie queen

Photo: From left to right: Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie

by T.T. Stern-Enzi

Cassandra Wilson, on her New Moon Daughter release, sang a languidly sexy tune titled “A Little Warm Death,” which spoke of sex as a little death that we welcome in the throes of ecstasy. Teasingly she started off, “a little warm death won’t hurt you none / come on relax with me / let me take away your physicalities.”

That’s the allure some of film’s sexiest stars of the past have promised viewers.

I would argue that Aubrey Plaza, a rising starlet known as an acerbic comic force in television shows like “Parks and Recreation” and movies ranging from “Funny People” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” has embraced a daringly raw, primal sexual presence in “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” and “Dirty Grandpa.” So often, we relate to sex comedies from the male perspective, expecting to see and enjoy the juvenile antics of young men caught in states of arrested development, reveling in their bromantic banter with female bodies available and on display simply for male satisfaction.

But Plaza, especially in the last two movies mentioned, seizes control of that idea, aggressively pursuing a pleasure principle that places her characters and their needs front and center. There is no act deemed too lewd to consider as long as it results in enjoyment – for her. And intriguingly, she incorporates or initiates others into the hedonistic fold, either her female best friend (Anna Kendrick) in “Mike and Dave” or Robert De Niro as a widowed grandfather in “Dirty Grandpa.”

Her latest film, which opens in our market this weekend, “The Little Hours” finds her rushing heedlessly down an even darker path, waving her freak flag in an effort to send signals to the rest of us that it is more than acceptable to prowl like a panther in heat. The story revolves around a group of nuns (including Alison Brie and Kate Micucci) in the Middle Ages who pounce on a young servant (Dave Franco) posing as a deaf mute, while fleeing from his master. The horny sisters entice him to satisfy their raw sexual urges. Plaza is the leader of this wild pack, but you pick up immediately that there’s more than sexual satisfaction on her mind. They all curse and snipe at one another, with zeal, but we’re supposed to chuckle and smile at the brashness of women of the cloth speaking and acting like pissed off hookers.

Plaza lets us see that there’s more to this joke; that it really might not be funny at all, and she’s ably aided and abetted by Jemima Kirke as Marta, who has a cameo-styled walk-on brazenly brushing off the comic impulses of the narrative. Sex is no laughing matter to these two performers, and they make sure that we appreciate how their characters were grounded in the inspirational source material – The Decameron by Boccaccio.

Plaza’s not merely bored and making a joke of the outbursts; she’s angry and raw and raunchy. There’s a darkness to her stare that’s a challenge. She’s got a bit of the old school femme fatale in her, but she’s arrived at the wrong time. We don’t get noir or even neo-noir that could take advantage of what she’s bringing to the table.

Buried in her, I see the blazingly sexy energy of Linda Fiorentino who twisted Bill Pullman and Peter Berg up in knots in “The Last Seduction” from John Dahl back in 1994. Fiorentino lurked around the margins of more mainstream fare, peering out of the back alleys and the shadows in the bedroom whispering with a deep-throated purr that stirred and frightened the loins of listeners. She gave the impression of being hard as a diamond with the promise of soft firm flesh, if you could get close enough to her unguarded state.

Plaza could be this generation’s version of Fiorentino, especially if she’s given the chance to push her sensibilities further. “The Little Hours” is more than a little afraid of letting her cut loose. It would rather settle for the juvenile vibe of a sorority house mimicking the excesses of the fraternities in the studio system, which could be fine on its own, but Plaza – with Kirke as her wingwoman – offer hints of what awaits us if that “little warm death” lasted more than a few little hours.

Little Hours [R] B-