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TV Movie Review: “Clear History” (HBO)

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I have to be honest with you. The whole time I was watching “Clear History,” the new original, full-length, comedy film from HBO, I kept thinking to myself how funny it was, but it seemed to be missing something. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Then, it hit me.

It was missing some of that Curb Your Enthusiasm music. You know the music I speak of. It was missing those whimsical, clarinet-filled interludes that would pop-up every time that series star Larry David would say or do something… well… that only Larry David would say or do. If you’ve never seen the show, it’s hard to put these musical moments into words.

If you have seen an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (and all it takes is ONE episode), then you know EXACTLY what I’m talking about and I don’t need to explain myself any further. I even missed that Italian style, accordion-heavy piece from the show’s opening: “Frolic” by Luciano Michelini. In fact, I was almost hoping that it would play during the film’s end credits, but alas, it did not. So, why am I mentioning Curb Your Enthusiasm so much, when the film I’m reviewing is not officially associated with the series? Well, because the answer is: it should have been. “Clear History” is, without a doubt and in every way, as close to a full-length Curb Your Enthusiasm movie as we’re ever going to get. Now, as a Larry David fan, this didn’t really bother me that much. I like David’s sense of humor and I love the way he writes – especially the dialogue. It’s been a couple of years since the 2011 airing of Season Eight, but David hasn’t missed a beat. He still includes a number of the dependable gags that “Curb…” had that made it such an outstanding and hilarious show for all of those years.

He also included a few of the series regulars to join him in this feature film project… and I was more than ecstatic to see them. To be fair, maybe a few of the “Curb…” comparisons wouldn’t be brought up if the original goal (Fox Searchlight planned to release the film in theaters, but HBO provided a bigger budget) came to fruition. Nevertheless, it didn’t happen and HBO stepped in and ultimately released the project on the same channel that “Curb…” thrived on for all of those years. Actually, I could see the storyline of the 110-minute long “Clear History” being a storyline that might’ve been fleshed-out during a whole season of “Curb…” The plot is pretty simple. It’s a tale of missed opportunity and how one, hastily-made, seemingly-small decision can affect someone’s life so greatly. And how one’s initial judgment, might not always be the correct one. Basically, it’s like saying: Think before

Jon Hamm (Will Haney) and Larry David (Nathan Flomm)  play former partners-turned-rivals in "Clear History"

Congatulations! You have lice in your beard. Your prize: lice in your beard.

you quit your job and pass up a billion dollar opportunity. This particular premise reminded me of a scene from the 1991 Albert Brooks/Meryl Streep flick, “Defending Your Life,” where the main character (during a very small, somewhat insignificant scene) turns down a once-in-a-lifetime stock tip involving Casio digital watches. He tells his Japanese buddy, “No offense, but the Japanese don’t know anything about precision and making watches.”  

Just like in “Clear History,” millions and/or billions of dollars were initially passed over and eventually left on the table. The story was also similar to the real life events (that was masterfully brought to life by David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin in 2010’s “The Social Network”) in which the controversial face-behind-Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, allegedly screwed his so-called partners/friends out of millions/billions of dollars – including his former best friend Eduardo Saverin, who made the huge mistake of thinking Zuckerberg was a decent human being and signed something without reading it first.  

Whatever the case may be, the main character of “Clear History” is Nathan Flomm (played by David) – a Porsche driving, long-haired advertising genius with an even longer beard (“You looked like the guy that took Elizabeth Smart,” his best friend Frank later tells him), who hails from the west coast and is Head of Marketing for a tiny, automobile company called Electron Motors. The year is 2003 and Will Haney (played by Jon Hamm, in the straight-man role) – Flomm’s boss and the owner of Electron Motors – is about to release to the public, “a safer, more efficient electric car,” that will “double the battery life” of any other electric car on the market. Sounds like a pretty good idea, considering how, in real life, the electric car was supposed to be the wave of the future around that time, but never took off due to crappy quality. Well, everybody at Electron thinks it’s a brilliant idea, including Nathan… well, that is… until he hears what the name of the car will be. Will wants to call it “The Howard,” which, according to Nathan, is “like calling a restaurant Hepatitis.” In true Larry David form, Nathan gets hung-up on the name (instead of focusing on the positive, money-making aspects of the idea) and tells Will he wants to quit the company and give back the ten-percent  of Electron that he owns.

Also, in true Larry form, he is comfortable with his decision, until he gets home that night and his wife and friends alert him to what a stupid decision he actually made. He goes back to Electron in the morning and begs Will for his job and company stock back, but to no avail. A spiteful Will – who’s mad at Larry… I mean Nathan, because he didn’t comment on how cute Will’s son was, when he met him a day earlier, and instead concentrated on the comment that his son’s nanny made about only washing her hair once a week – tells Nathan, “No, you may not come back to Electron.” This is even after Nathan conveys to Will that he thinks The Howard is a great name for a car: strong, dependant… average. Just like the character of Larry, Nathan is a complete asshole.

Although, not yet a “bald” asshole, just give it some time. As you can probably guess, in the next few months, the popularity of The Howard explodes. As Nathan and his now, totally, pissed-off wife watch some television (namely CNN), Wolf Blitzer proclaims that The Howard is “the Model-T of its generation” and “literally, a billion dollar idea.” EVERYBODY seems to be driving one, which looks like a compact version of a Mini Cooper with a giant “H” on the back of it. CNN and Blitzer also proclaim that, “Will Haney has built a better mousetrap and changed American culture forever… and in the process, he and those that were smart enough to become partners with him, have become very, VERY wealthy.” Of course, all of this is said while Cheryl (dammit, I did it again)… I mean his wife, whatever her name is, stares at him, arms folded and judging the hell out of him. Even

"Clear History" movie poster

You know this movie takes place in 2003 – people are still reading Time.

when he goes out to look for a new job, he is reminded of his terrible decision and his failure, as he scoops up a Time magazine with Will Haney’s face on the cover – under the heading, “Person of the Year.” Since, it IS a Larry David project – that’s not nearly enough humility for Nathan to endure. He opens up the magazine and finds a mini-story – within the article – about HIS exploits that reads, “The Man Who Gave Up a Fortune, Nathan Flomm.” Next to this article is a big picture of Will Haney and him, with big-ass smiles on their faces. Needless to say, Nathan Flomm’s life is ruined. So “ruined” in fact, that in the next few months everything goes up in flames for Flomm.

His wife packs her stuff and drives away and as she pulls away there is a huge “Foreclosure” sign on the front lawn of his house. And since this is a Larry David project hair-loss has to be involved (paging George Costanza – Cooooo….stanza!), as Nathan holds a big clump of his long hair in his hands as he shampoos in the shower. The final act of utter humiliation occurs at a Starbucks, as Flomm is standing in line when the TV mentions him as “the guy that lost all that money.” A Starbucks patron recognizes him and he gets harassed. He loses his cool and yells out, “Like you never made a mistake?” Unbeknownst to him, some teenager who just happened to be holding a camera (remember this is ’03 – before cell phone cameras were big) films the whole thing and the footage hits Late Night with Conan O’Brien (see, I told you – ancient history). It finally dawns on him… he lost a BILLION DOLLARS! Fast forward the clock ten years into the future and Nathan Flomm is no more. No, he’s not dead. However, he might as well be.

He has shaved his beard off, cut off (and lost) most of his hair, moved to the east coast to Martha’s Vineyard, and – here’s the kicker – changed his name to Rolly DaVore. Instead of taking a job within the world of business, Rolly has become a caretaker for a crusty, old lady named Tippy. He’s also pretty much the only person that still drives around in a gas-guzzling SUV, as everybody else STILL drives around in “The Howard,” which is the most popular car in the world. It’s Rolly’s birthday, although he does not feel like celebrating. His best friend Jeff… I’m sorry, I seriously can’t help it… I mean, Frank (played by Danny McBride – who further cements his case as one of my favorite comic actors) doesn’t take “NO” for

Danny McBride, Bill Hader and Michael Keaton are Larry David's buddies in "Clear History"

This crew’s got balls… and cue sticks too.

an answer and tells Rolly he’s taking him out for drinks to a dive bar, but he’s really bringing him to a surprise party. Rolly is SO surprised; he manages to punch the first person he sees in the face, which happens to be some dude named Jaspar (JB Smoove – who is hilarious as always).

Even though Rolly doesn’t know Jaspar, he does know Jaspar’s girlfriend Jennifer (played by Eva Mendes – who really delivers with her fake accent and not-so-smart sentiment) – who used to be fat and homely, but is now…umm… Eva Mendes. Anyway, the only reason I’m even mentioning this punch is because it becomes super-important to the plot later on. Let’s just say, it kind of pisses Jaspar off and he immediately thinks that Rolly is a violent racist, who singled him out because he was black. QUICK SIDE NOTE: I mean, really. Let’s be completely honest with one another. Can’t you seriously hear either the “Seinfeld” bass line or the “Curb…” clarinet, even as I MENTION these storyline points? I know while I was watching it, there were a few times when I would even mimic both themes – out loud. Maybe, that’s just me. One day, Rolly’s world (and his cover) is threatened, as he watches a seaplane land, pull up to the dock, and its occupants stumble out. I’ll give you guys ONE guess, as to who those occupants are? If you guessed Will Haney and his new wife (played by Kate Hudson) – he was a single father before – then you are correct. What kind of prize do you win? How about the prize of me NOT spoiling the rest of the movie for you. I will divulge that Rolly does attempt to concoct a very poorly-planned revenge scheme to try to get back at his former partner. This less-than brilliant maneuver comes to Rolly one night after he watches the 1949

Jon Hamm and his (in-movie) wife, Kate Hudson in "Clear History"

See my sea plane? Si senor.

Gary Cooper/Patricia Neal film “The Fountainhead.” The next day he tells an initally-skeptical Frank about his “brilliant” idea and, after some whining and begging, he convinces  Frank to recommend some “good people” and it’s off we go, towards the finish line.

Throughout the film we’re introduced to a colorful cast of characters and cameos played by all types of famous friends and collaborators of David. Michael Keaton takes a welcome and well overdue comic turn as a local nutcase named Joe Stumpo, who is hired by Rolly and Frank to “take care of their plan.” Bill Hader plays Stumpo’s assistant, Rags. Phillip Baker Hall plays McKenzie, who’s the foreman at Rolly’s new construction job (which he only takes, due to the fact that the job is on Haney’s property and his plan needs an “inside man”). Liev Schreiber has an unaccredited cameo as a shady, ponytail-sporting, leather jacket-wearing, criminal named Tibor. While, Amy Ryan (of The Wire and The Office) plays Rolly’s ex-girlfriend who has a physical attraction (and isn’t afraid to show it) for the band Chicago.

  QUICK SIDE NOTE: This Chicago subplot comes up quite a bit throughout the film, especially during the third act. It’s not THAT funny and, frankly, I wasn’t sure why they were wasting SO much time on it. I’ll just say this: pay attention during the very last scene of the film and it will finally pay off as to why all that time and effort was spent talking about how female fans sometimes take it TOO far with the Chi-town band that released 29 albums. Apparently, many of the women of

Amy Ryan is the Chi-town groupie in "Clear History"

So… What do you think the subject  matter of the joke is? I’ll give you a hint – My favorite Chicago Bull of all-time is BJ Armstrong.

“Clear History” find their physical/sexual obsession with Chicago “A Hard Habit to Break.” Sorry, had to be done.  With all of the favors that David calls in for this film, it’s virtually impossible not to compare it to watching four “Curb…” episodes smushed-up into one super episode. Nevertheless, that is NOT a bad thing. In fact, I’m willing to bet that it’s been a long-anticipated dream for Larry David fans to watch an unadulterated Larry David movie. The direction is nicely handled by Greg Mottola (who also directed “Superbad,” “Adventureland” and “Paul”), who sits back and lets David’s words do most of the work. When it comes to the talent that is NOT involved, even though I do miss a lot of the “Curb…” regulars (like Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, etc.), they are more than adequately replaced by the aforementioned cast members from “Clear History.”  However, what is NOT replaced and manages to make a very welcome appearance in “Clear History” are the catch phrases and mannerisms that LD has graced us with for all these years – first through the husky husk of “Seinfeld’s” George and later from David himself, in “Curb…” For example: When Rolly spends a wonderful, seemingly-romantic day with a female friend, carousing around a carnival-like atmosphere – winning prizes and holding hands. He leans in for a simple kiss at the end of the “date” and not only does she reject his advances, she makes a “yuck/yecch” sound and calls him a “gross old man.” Rolly doesn’t get angry or upset. He just looks at her with that half smirk/half smile/all smug, Larry David look and says to the offended party, “What, no good?” There are a number of times that old favorites like this show up in the film and – trust me – I’m not complaining whatsoever. The only complaint about the film I MIGHT have (if I absolutely HAD to name one) would be its predictability. I know, I know. Comedies are typically of the predictable nature (although, David’s work is less so than most), but there was a high percentage of plots and subplots that I saw coming from miles away. This goes double for the final act, which was ridiculously obvious, especially to anybody who’s seen ANY episode that Larry David (“Clear History” is David’s second film screenplay, with 1998’s “Sour Grapes” being his first) has had a hand in creating. All things

JB Smoove and LD are hilarious together in "Clear History" and just in general.

JB Smoove and LD are like the Barkley and Hornacek of comedy. JB’s character would say, “Das racist.”

considered, the story – along with all of its twists and turns – is original and inventive enough that it’ll make you forget any of the clichéd and/or uninspired material that get thrown in from time-to-time. Oh, Larry… or Nathan… or Rolly… or whoever. The days of their life never go exactly the way that he wants them to. But why would they? Why should they? In case you’ve forgotten, it IS a Larry David project – which means it’s filled with plenty of unsettling situations and dozens of awful events tend to happen, instead of the typical happy endings and/or fortunate circumstances that occur in other… normal films.

Just know this – the second you hear the strings being picked on that electric bass guitar or the up-and-down rhythm of that slide whistle or the clarinet, you know  that you’re about to spend thirty, very uncomfortable minutes in front of the TV screen.

But, when it comes to “Clear History,” it’s one hundred minutes in front of the flat screen. One hundred agonizingly UNCOMFORTABLE minutes – spent deep within the hellishly-inappropriate world of Larry David. And all the fans of L.D. and his projects (including me), wouldn’t want it any, other way.

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