There are few people who have refined to hilarious perfection the intersection of circumstance, happenstance and neuroses quite like Larry David. As a writer/producer on “Seinfeld” and writer/producer/star of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” he has created two extensive catalogs to a body of work where anxiety, superficial concerns and selfishness are also instantly relatable, and often gaspingly funny. And while the future of ‘Curb’ remains in limbo—David has remained undecided on another season, though the door at HBO is wide open for him to walk through at any time—he’s instead focused his energy on feature-length movie for the network, that on paper seems like a homerun. Reteaming with “Seinfeld” and ‘Curb’ writer/producers Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, and lining up a staggering cast, the fact that “Clear History” misses the mark as wide as it does isn’t so much a disappointment as a complete mystery.
Certainly, the film starts out ambitiously, with David leading the film playing a character that at least initially seems a few steps removed from the fictionalized persona he’s refined on television (aside from his appearance in “The Three Stooges” which shouldn’t be counted for anything anyways). Sporting long gray hair, a hippie vibe and looking like he should be at a Grateful Dead concert (or as Danny McBride puts it, like the guy who “kidnapped Elizabeth Smart“), Nathan Flomm is also one of the most valuable marketing men in the game. He’s recruited by Will Haney (Jon Hamm), the head of the rising Electron Motors, to spearhead to launch of their revolutionary new electronic car: The Howard. Claiming that the name is unmarketable, the self-centered Nathan angrily quits the company, and takes his 10% share in Electron with him. The next day, Nathan tries to apologize and return to the company but is rebuffed by Will. And in a twist that George Constanza can relate to, not so long after, The Howard is a huge billion dollar success, and everyone at Electron gets filthy rich… except Nathan…
Fast forward ten years, and Nathan is now living on Martha’s Vineyard under the name Rolly DaVore. He’s cleaned himself up, has established himself in the community with a job looking after an elderly woman and has a small circle of friends to play cards and with whom to shoot the shit. He’s also shaved his long beard, hair and looks like the Larry David we know and love. And he acts like him too, and thus, there goes the brief moment of David playing a different character. Anyways, Rolly’s world is rocked when Will suddenly moves in, buying up a massive property on the island. Even worse, when Rolly attempts to confront him, Will doesn’t even recognize him. Seething and appalled that this man from his haunted past has returned, and flaunts his riches (unknowingly) in his face, Rolly hatches an elaborate revenge scheme that will involve Will’s wife Rhonda (Kate Hudson) and a couple of wronged blue-collar schlubs (Bill Hader, Michael Keaton), all while trying to keep the peace with Jaspar (J.B. Smoove), someone he’s inadvertently been squabbling with, after he unintentionally punched him in the face and later advised his girlfriend Jennifer (Eva Mendes) to see other people (that’s the short version, the longer version makes more sense, but not by much).
Already, the film is throwing a number of narrative balls up in the air—which in the past David and his writers have proven they can handle quite well—but here it feels like a few too many. Nor is it helped by an ensemble, improvised approach. With four credited writers running up against a process that that invites creative freedom, “Clear History” would’ve benefited from the refinement of the “Seinfeld” format of tightly vetted scripts, rather than the looser structure found here. In a feature length format, with the movie running about one hundred minutes, it leaves far too many dangling threads and jokes, that are mistaken for worthwhile comedy. For example, in the opening stages of “Clear History” we witness Rolly/Nathan fail a roadside sobriety test because he is physically inept, but this never gets mentioned again. Meanwhile, Will is introduced as an Ayn Rand-loving corporate suit (he names both the car and his son after Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead“) put conveniences of the plot scuttle that detail. In short, priority is given to good gags over decent characterization, which may work in a shorter form, but at movie length there’s only so much a barrage of jokes can carry, especially when they’re not all hitting.
That said, the cast of players are mostly all a delight. McBride plays Rolly’s best friend Frank and it’s actually a reminder that the actor can be just as fun and funny a screen presence when dialed down. There’s an easy, lived-in warmth to his character that we haven’t seen from McBride in a long time. Michael Keaton is teamed with Bill Hader as a couple of locals helping Rolly in his scheme, and needless to say, we’d watch a whole movie with the pair. The easy rhythm the have with each other is a sign of two gifted talents having a great time. Surprise treasures are found in Mendes’ portrayal of Jennifer, a somewhat dim, but lively Cuban woman and Liev Schreiber as a Chechen fixer who gets far more involved with Rolly that he initially plans to. Unfortunately, not everyone is given the best material to work with. Amy Ryan—who can be remarkably hilarious—mostly stays in the background as Rolly’s (somewhat inconceivable) ex-girlfriend while Kate Hudson is given the thankless task of being what is essentially a character Macguffin to drive the formless movie along.
At the helm of all of this is Greg Mottola, whose comedy bonafides don’t need any explanation: “Superbad,” “Adventureland,” “Arrested Development,” “Paul.” But there is a distinct lack of energy in the filmmaking here. One can only surmise that given the improvisatory nature of the moviemaking process here, Mottola had to give deference to the cast, so his work behind the camera both in pacing and editing, leans toward the unflashy to the point of almost being stagey. That latter quality isn’t helped by a jaunty score from “The Artist” composer Ludovic Bource that frankly kinda feels like it’s from a 1940s comedy. It veers towards anachronistic, with the lively innocence of the music never feeling matched to the biting cynicism that David’s stories tend to carry with them.
“Clear History” certainly throws a lot of things around in its attempts to be funny. Outside of the main plot, running gags about the band members of Chicago receiving blowjobs from local women; something about cutlery being placed on napkins instead of the bare table; and the automotive etiquette required on single lane rural roads when two vehicles meet going in opposite directions, at least indicates David wasn’t short on ideas. But they never cohere into the sort triumphant observation of everyday life that David’s best work contains. “Clear History” is about a man forced to reboot his life a second time, but one wishes they had done that on the script first. [C]
“Clear History” airs on HBO on Saturday, August 10th at 9 PM.