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Larry David‘s new HBO film Clear History is in some ways a more successful reboot (and atonement?) of the 1998 film Sour Grapes, which he wrote and directed. David often has joked about that film’s failures, but he seems to have learned from mistakes in a way his characters never do. Clear History covers similar ground to Sour Grapes — money, greed and vengeance — but David taking the lead role this time is what brings the whole work together. He also has collaborated with some of the writers (Alec Berg, David Mandel, Jeff Schaffer) from his long-running HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm, and for that reason, among others, Clear History will feel for some like an elongated episode of Curb. But under Greg Mottola‘s (Superbad) direction, this time David’s brand of humor and improvisational style feels somehow friendlier and overall more accessible.
In Clear History (whose title really should have been Sour Grapes), David stars as Nathan Flomm, a marketing whiz who loses his job at an electric car startup after vehemently disagreeing with his Fountainhead-loving boss Will Hanley (Jon Hamm) over naming their new design the “Howard” (as in Roark, from whom Flomm later draws his own inspiration). Ten years later, thanks to Flomm’s bad luck, the Howard seems to have solved the energy crisis. The car’s ubiquity also signals the most difficult truth for Flomm to stomach: Because he cashed in his 10 percent stake in the company when he left, he lost out on what eventually would have amounted to $1 billion.
As his name becomes nationally associated with “idiot,” Flomm, penniless, moves east to Martha’s Vineyard and becomes a caretaker, and friend to the working class, under the name Rolly DaVore. But when Hanley and his new wife, Rhonda (Kate Hudson), begin building a monstrous abode on the island, Flomm schemes with some of the locals (played by Danny McBride, Bill Hader and Michael Keaton) to blow up the house and get even with Hanley for ruining his life.
The plot essentially is as straightforward as it sounds, but does contain a few twists and engaging (though nonessential) subplots, such as Flomm’s friendship with Jennifer (Eva Mendes) and his encounters with a Chechen thug (Liev Schreiber, channeling the intensity of his character from Ray Donovan). But one of the greatest bits, and a perfect example of Flomm’s obsessive nature, is a recurring joke about whether or not, and to what extent, his ex-girlfriend was intimate with the band members of Chicago at a concert 20 years earlier (the movie also is rife with Chicago references).
The story still boils down to the familiar Curb concept of “Larry David is an asshole surrounded by even bigger assholes,” but that’s a good thing. Despite the guise of a scraggly beard and hippie hair to start the film, David instantly is recognizable thanks to his trademark obsessions and confrontational attitude over minutia, like an idea for cars to have a pee-flap, a desire to put wall sockets higher (“are outlets like genitals? Do we have to hide them?”) and the sanitary practices of a diner that puts silverware directly on the table without a napkin.
While some of the comedy feels too broad for David’s regular style (particularly the backwoods bomb-squad characters played by Keaton and Hader), and the format too long for his usually extremely layered humor, Clear History does reflect David’s desire to deal with complex themes in his work, from a fable about corruption brought on by revenge, to the more redemptive moral of perseverance through difficult times. The shallow laugh is the irony that Flomm left the startup just before it took off, but the sad undertone is how he went on to make a new life for himself only to ultimately fall prey again to the obsessions of his past. For that reason, when the consequences of his actions play out, there’s not a sense of empathy so much as a fair resolution — a change of pace from Curb.
Clear History also marks a comedic change of pace for HBO, which has loaded the year with a heavy lineup of dramatic original movies. With its seaside setting and lighthearted fun, Clear History is a kind of pleasant, late-summer gazpacho, enjoyed to the sounds of Chicago and debates about whether there is a racial preference between black and white dwarves. That last part should prove that while Larry David might look and feel a little different in this project, he could never be mistaken, like Flomm is, for anyone else.
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