There are three groups of people in this world: those who love Larry David, those who hate Larry David, and those who have never cared to find out either way. Before viewing Clear History, I counted myself among those individuals in the third category. Somehow, through the years, I’ve avoided his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm completely and only managed to catch a few Seinfelds here and there. Though I had previously heard acclaim for David’s ‘comedic genius’ from friends and family, I’d never gained any familiarity with his neurotic, observant brand of humor. So it was with great curiosity that I settled in for Clear History, an HBO original film that David co-wrote and stars in. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t make a strong case for the comedian. Scarce laughs, an instantly forgettable plot and an ill-conceived overabundance of supporting stars make me wish I could wipe Clear History from memory.
If you want to simply dismiss my criticisms with, “He doesn’t get it,” and stop reading right here, go ahead. I can’t stop you. However, I’d put forth that there’s more wrong with Clear History than my opinion of David’s comedic stylings. Let’s start with the story.
Clear History opens as Nathan Flomm (David, at first almost unrecognizable under a scraggly beard), a marketing whiz in California, quits his job at an electric car startup over a dispute with his boss (Jon Hamm). His gripe: the proposed name of the startup’s car, the Howard, is so terrible that he can’t market it. His righteous indignation turns to mortification when the Howard takes off in a big way, making all his former co-workers rich. Ten years later, Flomm is living under a fake name in Martha’s Vineyard, maintaining an average life while quietly seething at the Howard’s growing presence on the island. When his former boss moves to town with a beautiful wife (Kate Hudson) and all the success Flomm feels he was untitled to, Flomm plots his revenge against the pair.
Though this plot may have had potential in the ideas stage of Clear History, director Greg Mottola never finds a way to make his film’s story seem like anything more than it is: filler, designed to set up and provide transitions between David’s many rants. The film plays like a particularly taxing, over-extended sketch. If David had an arsenal of riotous material at his disposal, this set-up could have worked, but his famous wit mostly fails him here. The comedian’s success suggests that fans get a kick out of his quirky talent for complaining about everything, from inconvenient electric outlets to unsanitary cutlery, but I simply found it grating. As he wanders through the film, saying and doing horrible things to anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way, nothing makes Flomm a remotely compelling, likable or even funny character. For a comedy built exclusively around him, that’s a fatal flaw.
The list of things that Flomm complains about is long and varied; in his mind, every word someone says to him is a barbed insult, every misfortune that befalls him is the result of an intricate conspiracy. Flomm’s holier-than-thou arrogance is a character trait that consistently backfires on him, but he incessantly refuses to acknowledge that he plays the biggest part in his own failures. The mistake that David and Clear History make is never allowing Flomm to grow by realizing his own grousing nature. When all is said and done, we’ve watched David kvetch for an hour and a half, but nothing has really changed. Nothing has been accomplished. Supporting characters act as catalysts to send Flomm into various series of complaints, but they fall short of forcing him to turn his incisive gaze back on himself. As a result, Clear History loses out on the chance to say something interesting about its protagonist.
The strongest part of Clear History is its supporting cast, but only a few of them get moments to shine. Liev Schreiber, oddly uncredited (probably something to do with his role on HBO rival Showtime’s Ray Donovan), turns in a pitch-perfect performance as the grizzled Chechen fixer Tibor, who intimidates Flomm with glaring intensity and a gravelly, menacing accent. Michael Keaton is terrific as Joe Stumpo, a crazed, backwoods-type bomb expert whom Flomm recruits as part of his vendetta against his former boss. Though he’s almost unrecognizable with thick facial hair and a low, growling voice, Keaton steals every scene he’s in with grouchy, booze-soaked machismo. Almost as good is Bill Hader as his nutty, explosives-loving friend Rags. If Clear History had centered exclusively on those two characters, it could have been much more entertaining, and that’s ultimately the film’s greatest weakness.
Clear History blindly puts the focus on Flomm’s quest for vengeance, its least interesting plot thread, when it should have been highlighting the bizarre, hilarious weirdos Flomm comes across in his travels. By allowing David to focus the film entirely on his one-note character, Clear History reduces many great supporting actors to plot contrivances. Neither Hamm nor Hudson get to do much of anything throughout the film, and the hilarious Amy Ryan solely hovers in the background as Flomm’s ex-girlfriend Wendy. Meanwhile, Eastbound and Down‘s Danny McBride looks utterly lost in a sizable role that doesn’t exploit his talent for jaw-dropping raunch, and frequent David collaborator J.B. Smoove never gets the screen-time he deserves. The same goes for Eva Mendes and Philip Baker Hall, both woefully under-utilized.
As David pushes his co-stars on and off the screen like an attention-starved emcee, one gets the sense that he’s frantically guiding us through a jam-packed comedy carnival. “Look here, now over there, no, on the left now,” his instructions go. All of Clear History‘s star-power, however, still isn’t enough to hide the film’s shortcomings. Abandoned side-plots abound, from Hamm’s character’s pointless love of Ayn Rand to Flomm’s drive to reconnect with Wendy. In the end, Clear History feels sloppy, as if David begun and ended discussions about the film’s script by assuring HBO that he’d handle it. With no quality control, the jokes flow freely but fall flat with alarming frequency.
As for the Blu-Ray itself, the 1080p Blu-ray transfer for Clear History is solid throughout. Colors pop in the right place, and the shiny, Apple-like design of the Howard is conveyed sharply. This is a movie powered by dialogue more than appearances, but the picture quality is still perfectly clear. Dialogue is also delivered effectively with a crisp 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track that manages to capture the small fluctuations and inflections in David’s distinctive voice.
Shockingly, Clear History isn’t packaged with any special features. That’s a disappointing choice coming from HBO, as it would have been nice to see some interviews with cast members about what it was like working with David. As it stands, the only ‘extra’ offered on the disc is a Digital Copy code. Buyers who utilize that option on purchases will be gratified to know that the code is compatible with both iTunes and UltraViolet.
Surely, Curb enthusiasts will get more out of Clear History than I did, but the movie also won’t win the comedian many new converts. As an introduction to David’s warped world, it’s frustratingly shoddy and almost completely humorless. Not recommended.
This review is based on a copy of the Blu-Ray that we received for reviewing purposes.
Clear History is an overdose of Larry David only recommended for his die-hard fans, a fanciful endeavor from the comedian that lands terribly after dismissing its stellar supporting cast in order to include as much middling material from David as possible.