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Josh Reviews Larry David’s Clear History

September 20th, 2013
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I don’t know why I didn’t watch Larry David’s HBO film Clear History the second it first aired on HBO.  Maybe the generic ads, or the even more generic title, neither of which gave me any idea of what the film was actually about?  But I knew I couldn’t resist a new project from Larry David — and many of the key creative minds he partners with on Curb Your Enthusiasm, including Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer — for long!

In Clear History, Mr. David stars as Nathan Flomm, a happy, shaggy-haired marketing wiz who works for an up-and-coming electric car company run by Will Haney (Jon Hamm).  When Nathan objects to the name Will chooses for their new car — the Howard — they get in a fight and Will leaves the company, agreeing to sell back all his shares in the company.  When the Howard proves to be an enormous success, Nathan realizes that he has lost out on a fortune.  Humiliated, he changes his name to Rolly DaVore and creates a new, modest life for himself on Martha’s Vineyard, where he works as the aide to an old woman.  For ten years he is happy there, until Will and his new young wife Rhonda (Kate Hudson) buy a house on the Vineyard.  Nathan feels he has to leave his life on the Vineyard and move somewhere else, but when he realizes in a chance encounter with Will that his former boss and partner doesn’t recognize him (now shorn of his long hair and beard and looking like, well, like Larry David), Nathan decides to stay and plot revenge against his nemesis.

Mr. David has recruited a top-notch cast to work with him on this HBO movie.  Jon Hamm is a great straight-man, and there is something magical about the pairing of this handsome, very not-Jewish leading-man with Larry David’s crabby, irascible, very-Jewish persona.  I only wish the film’s plot didn’t necessitate the two men for being almost entirely separated from one another after the events of the prologue!  The biggest shock to me in the cast was an almost unrecognizable Michael Keaton, who plays the testy demolitions-expert who Nathan hires to blow up Will’s new house.  Under an elaborate make-up job and sporting a thick crusty seaman accent, Mr. Keaton is a revelation, absolutely hilarious in every scene he is in.  Danny McBride is great as Rolly’s jovial best-friend in his new life on the Vineyard, though I wish Mr. McBride had a larger role in the story.  After a few promising early scenes, he is pretty much sidelined.  Also featured in the film are Liev Schreiber, Philip Baker Hall (Seinfeld’s Library Investigator Bookman himself!), Bill Hader, Kate Hudson, Amy Ryan, and Eva Mendes, all of whom make the most of their roles.  Popping over from Curb is J.B. Smoove as Jaspar, of whom Nathan unwittingly makes an enemy.

Clear History feels very much like a feature-length episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is both a strength and a weakness of the film.  It’s a strength because, hey, who wouldn’t want to watch a feature-length episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm??  But it’s a weakness because it seems to me that Mr. David and co., working with director Greg Mottola (a wonderful comedic director who helmed Superbad, Adventureland, and Paul), have tried to create something separate and distinct from Curb.  In that, I don’t think they succeeded.

First of all, the film’s structure is very reminiscent of a typical Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, in that Larry David’s character gradually pisses off a variety of people in a way that comes back to haunt him; in that Larry David’s character has a scheme that doesn’t ultimately succeed and in fact blows up in his face; and in that Larry David’s character takes the time to point out various aspects of modern life that annoy him in some way.

Secondly, while it seems that in Nathan/Rolly, Larry David & co. have tried to create a different persona for Mr. David, I found that there were too many times when Nathan/Rolly acted too much like Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David.  In the opening sequence in which the big-haired Larry (looking like a dead-ringer for Larry Charles) is supposed to be happy and cheerful (so cheerful that he is pulled over by a cop who thinks he is drunk) — which is very much the opposite of Larry David’s usual mood — Nathan can’t stop himself from getting hung-up on his dismay that Will’s nanny only shampoos her hair once a week, rather than focusing on meeting Will’s son, which of course lands him in hot water with his boss — an act which is VERY MUCH typical Larry David behavior!  Later, when we catch up with Nathan, now Rolly, on Martha’s Vineyard, we are again lead to believe that, despite his humiliation, Rolly is a happy person leading a content life.  When we see him eating in a local diner, the owner describes him as her favorite customer.  And yet we then see Rolly immediately piss her off by criticizing her for setting out the clean silverware directly onto the table, rather than putting the silverware onto a napkin.  And he continues to piss her off even more throughout the film.  This is VERY MUCH Larry David-type behavior!  It doesn’t really track that Rolly has been a happy and polite patron of that diner for the previous 10 years.

Time and again Nathan/Rolly acts like Larry David.  This leads to some very funny moments (Rolly’s declaration that he never responds to happy birthday e-mails because that would be too much work, and giving someone birthday wishes shouldn’t involve work, is a classic Curb Your Enthusiasm observation), but ones that feel out of character with the person the filmmakers are trying to convince us Nathan/Rolly is.  When Rolly decides to plot terrible vengeance upon Will, that should be a turning point for the character, something that this poor, happy man has been driven to by one unfortunate event after another.  But instead, it feels like expected behavior for this Larry David character.  And when an aspect of Rolly’s plan is undone by his getting into a huge argument with Will’s wife (Kate Hudson) as to which of them needs to back up their car so the other can pass, it feels 100% like we’re watching Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David, no question.

I certainly would recommend Clear History to fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, though you shouldn’t go in expecting dramatically different characters and situations.  That’s a shame, because I believe Larry David, partnered with such a phenomenally-talented group of writers, performers, and this director, could have created something that would have still been very funny, but that would have felt like a more distinct piece of work, separate and different from what Mr. David has been doing on Curb for the past decade.

(And good lord, couldn’t someone have thought up a better title?  I had no idea what the title meant when I read about it over the past few months.  When the film began and the opening titles showed a mouse/arrow moving across a computer screen, then I immediately understood.  But even so, while I now get the connection to Nathan’s needing to erase his past and begin a new life, it seems like a term that is so connected to computers, and so separate from anything that happens in the movie, that it still feels to me like a mistake.)

But, to end on a positive note, the bit in which Nathan grouses about the standard placement of outlets in hard-to-reach areas (“What are they, like genitals?  We have to hide them?”) is alone worth the time spent watching Clear History.  The man’s got a point!  (And for the record, I also agree with his comment about birthday e-mails…!)

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