Larry David might look like a new agey Moses in his HBO movie Clear History, which premiered Saturday night, but somehow the wild facial hair and flowing pants only serve to make him seem more like Larry David. He doesn’t play a role so much as demonstrate the stubborn transcendence of his persona: Even disguised in the shell of a new character, he sets about delivering nitpicky rants and torpedoing casual social interactions with his neuroticism. In one early scene, his character meets his boss’s nanny and can’t stop himself from asking her how many times a week she washes her hair; later, he rails against the unsanitariness of silverware resting directly on the table instead of on a napkin. The movie is familiar as a Davidesque safari through the daily absurdities of upper class life. But it makes you appreciate the restraint and concision of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
David’s character in Clear History is Nathan Flomm, a West Coast marketing executive who quits his job in a huff right before the company releases a massively successful electric car, thus losing himself about a billion dollars. Jon Hamm plays Flomm’s boss and bitter rival, who has a politician’s robotic charm. The second half of the film focuses on Flomm’s new life after reinventing himself on Martha’s Vineyard as a regular guy named Rolly DiVore—just as rude and oblivious as Flomm, with Larry David’s haircut, but somehow (in what is perhaps the movie’s best running joke) beloved on the island. David has enlisted a supporting cast of comic all-stars, many of whom are sadly underused. Bill Hader is a wacky Vineyard local named Rags. Kate Hudson is Hamm’s glossy-haired trophy wife. Eva Mendes gets handed a cartoonish Latina accent and a string of jokes about how she used to be fat.
Watching Clear History, I kept thinking of This is the End, the buddy comedy slasher flick directed by Seth Rogen that was similarly preceded by a marketing campaign consisting of luminous close-up shots of the famous faces involved in the film—Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride (who also stars in Clear History), to name a few. Like This is the End, Clear History was largely improvised, and it ultimately also banks too much on the machinery of its premise: in the case of This is The End, the Judd Apatow school of frat-boy comedic extremism; in the case of Clear History, the Larry David school of bourgeois life as a soap opera of pettiness. And both films illustrate some of the pitfalls of actors playing “themselves” as protagonists in movies: the redundancy, the diminishing returns of the inside-joke appeal of actors riffing on their own reputations.
By the end of Clear History, David’s persona, alas, has worn pretty thin. “I need the space in the bed and I feel like the air is contaminated from the breathing and they’re shedding skin cells,” says Flomm about his distaste for sharing beds, in his thousandth disquisition on the subject of hygiene. On “Curb,” David’s character has a sitcom’s compressed intensity, each episode a surreal dispatch from his worldview. Clear History, meanwhile, was improvised from 35 pages of script. “You are such an asshole!” one Vineyard resident tells Flomm, which is the movie's main revelation.