The Film: Clear History (2013)
The Principals: Greg Mottola (director). Larry David, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer (“writers”). Larry David, Bill Hader, Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Michael Keaton, Danny McBride, Eva Mendes, Amy Ryan, Philip Baker Hall, JB Smoove, Liev Schreiber
The Premise: Ten years after giving up his stake in what became a billion-dollar company, one man destroys his new life while trying to exact revenge on his former business partner.
Is it any good? A little bit of background before I answer that question …
I consider myself a fan of Larry David. I’ve watched every episode of “Seinfeld”, and (like any sane student of television history) consider it a seminal work – even if you’re one of the few who aren’t on its wavelength, you still have to respect its colossal impact on pop culture. And I appreciate the controversial “Seinfeld” finale for two reasons – one, it was the exact right ending for the show and the characters (something that becomes apparent when the episodes are watched sequentially); and two, it took massive, bigger-than-Whedon-sized balls to pull off as far as giving the audience not what they wanted, but what they didn’t know they needed. And in a lot of ways, that finale may be the key to David’s oeuvre as a whole – it was deeply moral; and showed characters we’d grown to relate to and love what the ultimate consequences were for living in their self-absorbed, neurotic, judgmental bubbles. That trend then carried over into “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, where Larry himself had to deal with the fallout of his behavior on a regular, consistent basis; and in quicker and harsher ways than the characters on “Seinfeld” did. Again – speaking as a Larry David fan – I love “Curb”, I’ve seen every episode, I miss it when it’s not on TV, and I hope we get at least one more season to wrap it up …
Especially after watching Clear History.
Clear History seems to prove that whatever Larry’s alchemy for comedic success is, it works best in small, concentrated doses (like cyanide). Much like his widely panned feature directorial debut Sour Grapes, Clear History is rambling, unfocused, and full of digressions. Worse, it shows that David’s range is in fact a very narrow one, as History seems more like a weird, alternate-universe version of “Curb” than anything else. Why go to the trouble of making a movie if you’re going to cling to your TV show’s formula?
The premise is actually really good, and could’ve sustained a great film: Ten years after leaving the company that created the first successful electric car (and losing out on billions as a result), David’s Nathan Flomm has built a new life for himself in Martha’s Vineyard. Since the corporate debacle, he’s lost his hair, shaved his beard, and adopted glasses (he now looks like Larry David instead of “the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart”) and is unrecognizable. When his old rival Haney (Hamm) decides to build his new mansion on the island, Nathan launches a plot to blow up Haney’s house (and/or seduce his wife, played by a radiant Kate Hudson).
David’s Flomm is a compelling character (even if he eventually just turns into “Larry David” with a pseudonym). It’s new to see David financially ruined, filled with more self-loathing than normal. And David works well with director Mottola to get our sympathies on Flomm’s side throughout – even when he’s plotting arson, you hope things work out okay … because haven’t we all (hopefully on a lesser scale) made mistakes like this, and wished to rectify them? Unfortunately, the character work with Flomm is derailed by David’s tendency to insert “Curb”-style “annoyance vignettes” into the text – Flomm inadvertently punches JB Smoove in the face, insults a waitress with his OCD attitude toward silverware and napkins, obsesses about whether or not his ex-girlfriend blew every guy in Chicago (the band, not the city), and gets into debates over the proper order to reverse when two cars find themselves stuck. All of this would fill average episodes on “Curb” (not even the good ones), and in this new context – where we’re repeatedly told that Flomm’s built a new life for himself on the island and everybody loves him – they stick out as filler instead of what’s organic. (Also, they seem unbearably petty, even by Larry David standards.) If David had felt more comfortable breaking away from “Curb” entirely, this would be a better movie. But all it did was make me miss the show.
On to the good stuff … primarily, the cast. They’re uniformly excellent, and you can tell they’re thrilled to be working with Larry. The “romantic” subplot with David and Kate Hudson resolves in a scene that’s honest, true, and genuinely funny; Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber are standouts; and Jon Hamm does great work. Don’t get me wrong, there are funny moments here. But they’re spread thin over almost two hours – if this film had clocked in at 90 minutes, it would’ve been much stronger.
Clear History could’ve been a great movie – instead, it’s a really disappointing episode of “Curb”.
Random anecdotes: It seems like the title should have a double meaning (especially given the opening credits), but I don’t even recall seeing a computer being used – it’s a shame Sour Grapes was taken. (Or, for that matter, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.)
Liev Schreiber had to appear without a credit, due to his current contract with HBO competitor Showtime.
Over the course of writing this article, I stumbled onto this and laughed more than I did during the entirety of Clear History.
Cinematic Soulmates: Waiting For Guffman. Superbad. Sour Grapes. “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.