For fans of Larry David (among whom I count myself) and his masterful modern comedies Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, the potential was bursting for his latest writing and starring effort Clear History to transport you back to those heydays. On the other hand, for those who find his brand of uptight, quick fire improvisational humour grating, they will find themselves trapped in 100 minutes of quirky hell.
While there are extended instances of David’s untethered wit on display in this HBO production, and though it assembles a darkly comedic series of events (and a well matched ensemble), this comedy of errors falls flat too early on to fully recover and never twists up all its juicy subplots satisfyingly enough for me to recommend it.
The opening act of Clear History is pure neurotic torture, coming off as more a parody of David’s usual material than something crafted by the man himself. We meet with David’s character Nathan in 2003 San Jose, California where he is working on marketing a new electric vehicle for a promising start-up headed by Will Haney, played by Jon Hamm. Things are going great until the name of the vehicle – Howard – is unveiled and Nathan decides there is no way he could market a product with such a moniker and decides to quit and cash out his 10 percent stake. As can be expected by anyone who has seen Seinfeld, the company explodes and makes its stakeholders billionaires and Nathan a pariah (and pop culture joke). Fed up and essentially ruined, he changes his look, his name and moves to Martha’s Vineyard to start anew.
It is when we are re-introduced on the picturesque island that things stabilize abruptly and we begin to meet the other inhabitants of the community. With a break from a rambling David and other capable comedians to work with, the tone of the film shifts from awkward to actually quite pleasant and even in a way, calming. However, for my money, so much damage had been done by the disastrously unfunny opening it was difficult to fully forgive even as things became increasingly more interesting. The kinks that unravel on the island come left and right, including but not limited to, Will and his family showing up on the island to build a massive mansion (much to the chagrin of the townsfolk), the arrival of the band Chicago to perform a show, a plot to remove the aforementioned mansion from the island, a relationship that burgeons between Will’s wife and Nathan (who has now adopted the name Rolly), and a Chechen gangster.
As is often the case when assembling so many characters and subplots, films can lose sight of the main storyline and become muddled in a way that can sink the beast entirely. Somehow, in the case of Clear History, the addition of so many plot threads actually raises the intrigue and until the ending actually came around, I had no idea how it would conclude. That being said, imagining what would occur was ultimately more satisfying than what actually transpired. It evoked a love/hate feeling that when coupled with the opening, induced a stumble from which it couldn’t reorient.
I already mentioned how many characters to which we are introduced as this story unwinds but what I intentionally failed to illustrate is just how many big stars pop up. In addition to David and Hamm we get Rolly’s best bud Frank (Danny McBride), Kate Hudson as Will’s wife, Amy Ryan as Rolly’s old flame and local waitress, Eva Mendes as a recently slim Columbian, Michael Keaton and Bill Hader as two local yahoos and finally, Liev Schreiber as that unscrupulous Chechen. The standouts are McBride (who is nothing close to a stranger to improv), Keaton and Schreiber, though everyone (unknowns included) get at least one moment to shine and collectively they make for an immensely appealing group of actors. Even the members of Chicago make an appearance and are the focus of a rather amusing running gag (no pun intended for those whom are privy to the joke).
When things finally wrapped up for Clear History I felt more as if I had just continuously binged on five seasons of Seinfeld and was burnt out from the shtick more than I had just seen an extended episode of Curb. Funny moments and strong work from its likeable cast simply can’t overcome its follies and even while I appreciated the intentionally random interactions of David’s character, there is a sense of emptiness to the end result. It’s certainly a watchable effort but not one I could ever recommend with the enthusiasm of the comedian’s other fine work.