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Larry David’s ‘Clear History’ Shouldn’t Work, But It Does

HBO’s Clear History is a unique, sometimes peculiar, and altogether satisfying hybrid of two very different branches of the network’s original programming arm. On one hand, it is an original movie, directed by a name filmmaker (Greg Mottola, who helmed Superbad, Adventureland, and Paul) and featuring a juicy ensemble including Amy Ryan, Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, and Eva Mendes. On the other, it’s an extension of their comedy series brand, something like a triple-length episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (featuring that show’s star and co-writer, Larry David), with a splash of Eastbound and Down thrown in (via co-star Danny McBride). It sounds like it shouldn’t work. It does, magnificently.

The story begins in San Jose, circa 2003. David plays Nathan Flomm (seriously, that’s a moniker W.C. Fields would’ve worn with pride), the marketing partner for a start-up electric car company who falls out with the president, Will Haney (Hamm) over the car’s name, “Howard.” “It’s like naming a restaurant hepatitis!” Nathan insists, and it’s downhill from there. But not long after he splits, the company blows up; the Howard is the business success story of the decade, and Nathan’s shares, had he not cashed out, would’ve netted him something like a billion bucks. Frustrated by his failure and tired of the attention he’s getting as the dumbest guy in America, he drops out, changing his appearance and his name, and moving far, far away.

Ten years later, Nathan — now Raleigh — has got a pretty good thing going in Martha’s Vineyard: good friends, good job, good life. And then Will Haney moves into town. Nathan/Raleigh, driven mad, considers starting over again, but comes up with a more sensible solution late one night, while watching The Fountainhead on TV: he decides to blow up Haney’s gaudy McMansion.

There’s a perverse thrill in the mere notion of Ayn Rand inspiring the destruction of a capitalist, but Clear History is full of clever little touches like that. Most of the laughs, as on Curb, come from the well-established LD persona, and some of the riffs (particularly early on), are the kind of inappropriately judgmental, minutiae-based comedy that could parachute into that show easily: an unfortunate field sobriety test, an argument regarding the importance of sincerity in an apology, a hang-up over silverware and napkins.

But the fusion of his comedy into a different character and a real narrative allows us to see variations that wouldn’t organically occur on Curb: what it looks like when Larry goes broke, for example, or does manual labor, or how he functions in a rural setting (there’s a lot of arguing over who gives clearance on country roads). And the early alteration to his familiar appearance (McBride says of his long-hair-and-beard look, “You look like the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart”) is a big laugh that, frankly, I wish the trailers hadn’t given away.

While the Curb structure of familiar character, running jokes, and carefully established (and paid off) story strands is adhered to, Clear History is a “real movie,” and Mottola sneaks in some aesthetic flourishes that the likably slipshod Curb usually doesn’t stop for. The film easily establishes the warmth and familiarity of its locale, and there’s a welcome density to Mottola’s compositions (his use of background action, contrasted with the obliviousness of his foreground characters, gets two of the film’s biggest laughs). And the supporting cast is well used: Hamm and Ryan may be stuck playing the straight roles, but they do them delightfully, and this is the best Hudson’s been since Almost Famous. (Not hard to be, but still.) Keaton and Schreiber have a blast in their wild character turns, and David has clearly found another totally game improvisational partner in McBride, with whom he shares several inspired riffs.

Look, I’m well aware that Larry David isn’t everybody’s particular brand of vodka, and Clear History isn’t going to win him any new fans. But for those of us who agree with Mel Brooks that “there’s something about this middle-aged bald guy that’s thrilling,” his new film is a high-spirited treat — and a hint at the possibilities that await him if and when he finally calls it a day on Curb.

Clear History premieres Saturday night on HBO.

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