From left, Jon Hamm and Larry David
The previews for Clear History, the Larry David movie comedy premiering Saturday on HBO, look promising, if only for the cast. In addition to David, who knows funny, supporting players include Jon Hamm, current Emmy nominee/Saturday Night Live veteran Bill Hader, Michael Keaton and Danny McBride.
Despite a promising set-up, however, this TV movie likely will please only hardcore fans of Curb Your Enthusiasm, David’s cult sitcom hit for the same premium channel, because Clear History – which, like Curb, is improvised by the actors based on a story line devised by David and longtime writing colleagues Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer – plays like a feature-length episode of the sitcom.
Let me just say right up front, this is not a good thing in my book. I’ll give David his props for coming up with some of the most brilliant comedy in TV history with some of his scripts for Seinfeld, but I’ve never warmed to Curb Your Enthusiasm, which revolves around a central character (played by David) who is, quite frankly, a self-absorbed jerk who is barely tolerable in a half-hour dose.
In Clear History, we spend most of the 90-plus-minute running time with David’s alter-ego Nathan Flomm, a selfish, grating dolt who spends the entire movie seething over misfortune that is entirely of his own making.
I had high hopes during the opening scenes which flash back 10 years, introducing the hippie-ish Nathan as the marketing executive at Electron Motors, a start-up electric car company run by lifelong friend Will Haney (Hamm), who is preparing to launch a new electric car prototype called the Howard, after Will’s young son. OK, that’s pretty funny, because the Howard is a ridiculous name for a car, and Nathan tells Will it will be impossible to market a car with such an idiotic name (“It’s like naming a restaurant Hepatitis!” he screams). Unfortunately, as with many of David’s characters, Nathan takes his argument way past a civil debate with his boss, throwing a tantrum and walking away from his job, which includes a 10 percent share in the company.
Against all odds, however, the Howard is a phenomenal success, earning the company billions of dollars. Soon, news of Nathan’s ill-advised resignation becomes public knowledge, turning him into a pop culture laughing stock.
Zipping forward to the present, Nathan has given himself a style makeover and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where he is quietly living under the name Rolly DaVore. His contented life is disrupted, however, when Will and his wife (Kate Hudson) move to the Vineyard and begin building an ostentatious new home that only rubs salt in Nathan’s wounds. It’s not long before Nathan begins hatching a revenge scheme.
You’re probably ahead of me in spotting the basic flaw here. Nathan is seeking revenge for something that Nathan did to himself and, just as much to the point, he wants payback from someone who, we learn, is actually a very decent guy. How and why are we supposed to pull for Nathan?
An even bigger problem is the improvised nature of the film. Comedy is all about the timing, and while David, Hader and McBride are pros at improvisation, many other cast members are not, so we get a lot of exchanges that sound like this:
“I have no idea what to do.”
“You have no idea what to do?”
“Yeah, no, no idea at all.”
“You mean, like, absolutely no idea at all?”
As a result, instead of building up steady momentum that carries us to the climax, Clear History meanders, strolls, shuffles and, mostly, stumbles in its storytelling. It’s significant that one of the few moments that really made me laugh out loud, a visual joke involving a swing set, was something that was NOT improvised.
For what it’s worth, the cast seems to be having a good time, and if you’re wondering why Liev Schreiber, who has a fairly substantial supporting role, doesn’t appear anywhere in the credits, David recently told a gathering of TV critics in Los Angeles that it was because Schreiber currently stars in Ray Donovan on HBO’s rival, Showtime. That seems a little silly to me, but in any case, it works out well for Schreiber, because I can’t think many of these actors will want to include this limp, disappointing TV movie on their credits.
From left, Kate Hudson, Larry David, Jon Hamm
Jon Voight and Liev Schreiber
Move over, Olivia Pope. There’s a new fixer in TV Town.
Unlike Kerry Washington’s central female character on ABC’s soapy hit Scandal, Ray Donovan – the title character played by Liev Schreiber in a terrific new Showtime drama series premiering tonight – is decidedly masculine and based on the West Coast, but like Olivia, he earns his living helping power players sidestep potential career-ending scandals. You say you’re a Hollywood movie stud with a weakness for transvestites or a star athlete whose one-night stand is lying in your bed, dead of a drug overdose? Ray’s your guy.
Helping Ray rescue the rich and powerful are his two associates, an intimidating Israeli named Avi (Stephen Bauer) and tough-as-nails Lena (Katherine Moennig, The L Word). The trio does most of its work for the powerful law firm of Goldman/Drexler, headed by Ray’s increasingly eccentric mentor Ezra Goldman (Elliott Gould) and his high-strung partner, Lee Drexler (Peter Jacobson, House).
It’s a rare professional challenge that Ray can’t handle without breaking a sweat, but he has less success on the homefront. His brother Terry (the great British character actor Eddie Marsan) struggles with Parkinson’s disease caused by spending too many years in the boxing ring, and kid brother Bunchy (Dash Mihok) hasn’t been able to maintain sobriety since he was abused by a priest while the brothers Donovan were growing up in South Boston. Ray is convinced, however, that most of their problems can be traced back to their father, Mickey (Jon Voght), a brutal Irish gangster who gave his sons no emotional support and left them to fend for themselves.
Years ago, Ray moved his own family, along with Terry and Bunchy, to Los Angeles, hoping to make a fresh start far from the toxic influence of Mickey, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Now, however, Mickey is out and heading for the City of Angels, determined to punish Ray and reclaim his position as patriarch of the Donovan clan. And sadly for Ray, his bitter wife, Abby (Paula Malcomson, Deadwood), a seething ball of resentment and jealousy over her husband’s imagined infidelities, is all too ready to offer Mickey easy access to their two teenage kids (Kerris Dorsey and Devon Bagby) just for the petty satisfaction of angering her husband.
Believe it or not, that extended back story just scratches the surface of the complicated emotional tapestry series creator Ann Biderman (the late, great Southland) has woven, brought to vivid life by this very gifted cast. There really isn’t a bad performance or a distractingly false note anywhere in the four episodes I’ve seen so far, but it’s the explosive relationship between Ray and Mickey that really powers this series.
During the past few years, Voight probably has gotten more attention over his occasionally kooky public comments than for his performances but, at 74, this Academy Award winner can still bring it when he gets the right role. Here, his Mickey is all silky charm and false contrition as he reunites with his family and plays harmless Gramps to score sympathy points, but Voight also lets us see the feral beast lurking and waiting just below the surface. It’s entirely believable that this old man still has the power to scare the daylights out of Ray, especially when Ray sees Mickey cuddling up to the kids.
As for Schreiber, well, like his longtime life partner, Naomi Watts, he’s been delivering one fascinating performance after another for several years now, yet he still seems consigned to the B-list in terms of major stardom. If Ray Donovan hits as solidly as it deserves to, that may finally change, because this is a performance that is both tough and tender, deeply poignant and compelling even in these first episodes where we’re still getting to know Ray. And believe me, if you’re a fan of powerful adult drama, you’re going to want to know Ray Donovan very well indeed.