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