The Alan Ayckbourn play, The Norman Conquests, and its televised performance (in 1977 and available on DVD) make for a magnificent experience.
This is actually a triptych of plays featuring six British characters, all but one of them related. Many a fault, or sin, is manifest among them; many a sad moment arises. Norman is an assistant librarian and a great, rather promiscuous, lover unhappily married to a woman he nevertheless yearns for. He conducts an affair with Annie, who inwardly recoils from such a feckless man but is subtly resisted by the naïve chap, Tom, of whom she is fond. Matronly Sarah nags her husband Reg mercilessly, but is disappointed enough with her marriage to enjoy the odd attentions of the Norman she deplores.
A serious play, then, but, as everyone knows, Ayckbourn writes comedies—which is why his plays get mounted—so there is no depressing content. The cast is superlative. Tom Conti (Norman), for example, is nearly startling in his nuances. Penelope Wilton was as good an actress in her thirties as she is now, and had better material in Norman than she does in Downton Abbey. As Annie, she can be fiery but yearningly sensitive as well.
Also, I’d like to say this: Again, it is a 1977 production, and it’s refreshing to see a show which never questions whether a character who is less than a he-man, e.g. Norman, is genuinely heterosexual (instead of, say, bisexual). Behind such questioning is the wish to see homosexuality as more pervasive than it really is. No, The Norman Conquests is a strictly heterosexual comedy.
Federico Fellini’s 1954 film I Vitelloni (“Overgrown Calves”) proves just how satisfying an original screenplay can be. Three heads, one of them Fellini’s, produced it, and the result is a sure artistic success about life as lived by five young men in a provincial Italian town. Unambitious about traditional living—traditional living, to be sure, in an arid town—the callow “overgrown calves” are indifferent to the social values their elders know must exist.
Fellini’s direction is careful and winningly imaginative, serving a film as buoyant as it is sad. Precisely the sympathy for freakish people we want, but don’t always get, from a Fellini movie exists in spades here. Better, everything is made engaging, from characters to details.
(In Italian with English subtitles)
The quicksilver farce in They Came Together (2014) is reminiscent of that in the TV shows Arrested Development and 30 Rock. Just as both of those series were low-rated, David Wain’s movie failed to open in very many theatres and few people have heard of it. It’s now on DVD and Blu-Ray and (in my opinion) manages to be properly structured and brashly hilarious.
A full-length parody of romantic comedies, it features Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler doing expert work as lovers Joel and Molly, and although much of the humor is not integral to the parody, that’s fine; it keeps the laughs coming. . . I used the word “brashly.” Brash because, for one thing, it’s often, but not constantly, bawdy (from the silly title on). Also, it can get pleasantly weird, as when the couple are in bed after having sex and are fully clothed. Or . . . did they have sex? It’s agreeable, too, that Wain likes his characters while he does his crazy lampooning.