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On HBO: CLEAR HISTORY (2013)

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CLEAR HISTORY
(US - 2013)

Directed by Greg Mottola.  Written by Larry David, Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer.  Cast: Larry David, Jon Hamm, Kate Hudson, Michael Keaton, Danny McBride, Eva Mendes, Amy Ryan, Bill Hader, Philip Baker Hall, Liev Schreiber, J.B. Smoove, Lenny Clarke, Amy Landecker, Patty Ross, Paul Scheer.  (Unrated, 97 mins)

Larry David hasn't had the same level of success when he's tried to expand his trademark SEINFELD and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM comedic stylings to feature-length.  He wrote and directed the 1998 dud SOUR GRAPES, an occasionally amusing comedy that felt too sitcom-y and was barely released by Warner Bros.  He produced the 2004 Ben Stiller-Jack Black bomb ENVY and had a hand in the script, though he ultimately refused a writing credit.  David has worked in a couple of films for others, most notably Woody Allen's WHATEVER WORKS (2009), but over the course of eleven years and eight seasons, he's perfected his craft on CURB, so now he's giving movies another shot with the HBO film CLEAR HISTORY.  The story mines similar territory explored in SOUR GRAPES and ENVY:  SOUR GRAPES had Craig Bierko borrowing a quarter from cousin Steven Weber to play a 50-cent slot machine, hitting the jackpot, refusing to split the earnings and instead simply giving Weber the 25 cents that he borrowed.  ENVY has Stiller passing on a chance to invest in his best friend Black's spray that makes dog feces disappear, only to seethe with jealousy when he sees it become a massive worldwide success.


CLEAR HISTORY almost sounds like a remake of ENVY, minus the dog shit.  Opening in 2003, the film has David as Nathan Flomm, a long-haired, madman-bearded marketing guru (he looks a lot like CURB director Larry Charles) and one of the honchos at Electron Motors.  When CEO and Ayn Rand enthusiast Will Haney (Jon Hamm) christens the company's game-changing electronic car the "Howard," after his young son, himself named after the protagonist from The Fountainhead, Flomm refuses to get behind the project and sells his 10% stake in Electron, and promptly sees the Howard become the most popular vehicle in America.  Immediately branded a business-industry pariah Flomm vanishes from sight after his wife (Amy Landecker) leaves him and he loses his home to foreclosure.  Cut to 2013: Flomm went bald from the Howard stress, now looks like "Larry David," and has a new persona--likable Martha's Vineyard townie Rolly DaVore.  "Rolly" lives a peaceful life, doing odd jobs, hanging out at the local diner, playing cards with his buddies (Danny McBride, Lenny Clarke), and he's still on friendly terms with an ex-girlfriend, waitress Wendy (Amy Ryan).  Rolly's life turns upside down when his past comes back to haunt him in the form of multi-billionaire Haney and his new wife Rhonda (Kate Hudson) building an obscenely large mansion in town on some property once owned by the family of crazed Joe Stumpo (Michael Keaton), who's got a personal beef with McKenzie (Philip Baker Hall), the local construction magnate overseeing the building of Haney's house, which includes a basketball court and a bowling alley.  After stumbling upon the 1949 film version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD on late-night TV, Rolly hatches a plan to exact his revenge on Haney: team with Stumpo to blow up Haney's mansion and run off with Rhonda.


CLEAR HISTORY is easily the most successful transition of David material from TV to feature-length, likely because David is acting in it as well.  Rolly isn't much different from the "Larry David" seen on CURB, right down to some recycled gags:  Rolly inadvertently talks formerly overweight/now stunning Jennifer (Eva Mendes) out of her engagement to fiancé Jaspar (J.B. Smoove), similar to how Larry unintentionally talked his sister-in-law's fiancé out of marrying her; Rolly's too finicky to use a port-o-john on the construction site and instead helps himself to the bathroom inside the house; Flomm arguing with Haney over the sincerity of an apology.  Flomm/Rolly is preoccupied with standard LD neuroses:  Flomm barely able to mask his disgust with the name "Howard" ("Call it a Dewey!  Dewey's a nice name!"); Rolly lecturing diner manager Gladys (Patty Ross) about putting silverware directly on the table; Rolly being distressed by the revelation that a teenaged Wendy once fellated multiple members of Chicago backstage when the band played Martha's Vineyard 20 years earlier; Rolly getting on the bad side of a humorless Chechen (Liev Schreiber) when a misinterpreted wave results in a fender-bender.  Even the name "Flomm" is borrowed from CURB (it was the name of the doctor Larry briefly dated, where he arrived at her home to find it identical to her office, right down a receptionist and a waiting area in her living room).  "Flomm" is one of those names that David just likes the sound of, like "Bob Cobb," which was the name of The Maestro on SEINFELD and was used again on CURB by a character who annoyed Larry by insisting his grandfather Bob Cobb invented the Cobb salad.


Also helping CLEAR HISTORY is that it was shot very much in the style of CURB: a basic outline provided by David and regular CURB collaborators Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer (also the team behind EUROTRIP), and fleshed out by some improv from the cast.  It's a style that requires some chops, which explains the presence of CURB vets like Smoove and Hall as well as pros like a barely-recognizable Keaton (who brings an almost BEETLEJUICE jolt of manic energy to his role), McBride (who sees a pic of Rolly as Flomm and says "You look like the guy who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart!"), Bill Hader, and Hamm, who's shown on SNL that he's just as adept at comedy as he is serious drama.  David isn't much of an actor, and he'd be the first person to admit it (even his performance as misanthropic Boris Yelnikoff in WHATEVER WORKS was more "Larry David" than anything), so it's fortunate that just being essentially himself is enough to get the job done.  There's a feeling of familiarity to a lot of CLEAR HISTORY, and as a result, there's nothing it that reaches the heights of SEINFELD or CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, but for a fan of those shows and the patented David persona, it's pretty damn funny all the same.


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