Larry David refuses to be tied down about when or even if he’ll make more “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but until he decides to serve up another round of the critically adored HBO series, there’s “Clear History,” a new movie co-written by and starring the irascible comedian that’s set to premiere on the premium network this Saturday, August 10 at 9pm.
Directed by Greg Mottola and improvised by the actors from a 35-page outline, “Clear History” is essentially a shaggy-dog story designed to showcase the irrepressible voice and worldview that David’s honed since “Seinfeld.” He’s playing a character, technically, but he pretty much seems like himself (or at least the persona he wears so comfortably) as he takes us through the story of a man who lets a minor disagreement deprive him of his share of a billion-dollar company, making him a national laughingstock and driving him into hiding under a new identity.
There’s little that’s insistently cinematic about “Clear History,” and little sense of form — it feels more like a loose gathering of scenes than any solid whole. But it does offer a valuable chance to spend time with the sui generis David, who’s at first unrecognizable as the not-yet-fallen-from-grace Nathan Flomm, a bearded, long-haired marketing exec at a startup.
He insists the company not call the electric car they’re preparing to unveil “The Howard”– and when they disregard his wishes, he sells back his shares and quits. (That Howard is the name of the young son of his boss, Will Haney — Jon Hamm, as the film’s straight man — softens his argument not a whit.) As the new car takes off, Nathan’s plush life falls apart, to the point where he decides to change his name to Rolly DaVore and start a new, working class life on Martha’s Vineyard.
The funniest aspect of “Clear History” may actually be unintentional — that Rolly is petty, stubborn, inconsiderate and detail-obsessed and, somehow, universally loved on the Vineyard. He punches someone in the face at his own surprise party, talks a girl out of an engagement because she’s lost some weight and he feels she should play the field, and bitches at the local diner for putting its silverware right on the table instead of on a napkin. David’s supposed to be playing a reinvented, more grounded and less insensitive character, but he’s still overwhelmingly himself, and whether any change is supposed to occur within the character, even at the film’s end, is unclear.
Rolly’s happy retreat from his past life is interrupted by the arrival of Will and his wife Rhonda (Kate Hudson), who are building on a piece of property on the island. Will doesn’t realize the now bald and clean-shaven Rolly is his old coworker, giving Rolly a window for revenge — though why he thinks Will merits it, when he’s the one who walked away, is not something to which he gives much thought. As he enlists the help of friends and neighbors — played by the likes of Bill Hader, Michael Keaton and Danny McBride — it becomes evident that Rolly, or Nathan, has always been his own worst enemy.
The cast is large and impressive, though not always well served. Keaton, Eva Mendes and Liev Schreiber all show up to play outsized roles that can be funny but don’t always gel, while others, like Amy Ryan and Philip Baker Hall, turn up in roles that feel so fully formed it’s strange there’s not more to their arcs. The film’s weakest in its big storyline and, unsurprisingly, best in the many small scenes in which David and company bicker about nothing in particular, from the difficulties of sharing a bed to the advantages of having eye-level power outlets to whether or not it makes sense to have a built-in pee flap in a car. David’s artistry with these kinds of conversations is evident, but by comparison the film’s structure seems unimportant and a little unnecessary, like having a whole outsized house that needs to be furnished when all you need is one room filled with comfy furniture.