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By Playing Poor, Larry David Strikes It Rich on 'Clear History'
August 8, 2013  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments

Larry David may or may not be re-upping for another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm – but in the meantime, he’s starring in a new HBO movie that’s pure David. In other words, pure hilarity…

Clear History, a one-shot HBO Films telemovie premiering Saturday at 9 p.m. ET, stars David as a marketing executive at an innovative start-up automotive company. The movie begins in 2003, when the company boss, played by Jon Hamm from Mad Men, is about to launch a new, tiny electric car.

David plays Nathan Flomm, a bearded hippie type who likes the idea of the car but hates the boss’ proposed name for the vehicle: the “Howard.” So Nathan argues with the boss, gives back his percentage of the company and walks away.

The Howard is an instant hit, making Flomm – who walked away from what turned into a billion dollars in stock – the laughing stock of the business world. Suddenly, it’s 10 years later, and the formerly sloppy, bearded Flomm looks like the old familiar Larry David, and is living on Martha’s Vineyard under the name of Rolly DaVore, doing odd jobs, barely squeaking by, and filled with residual anger about the fortune he gave away.

Clear History is directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad), and written by David and his Curb cohorts Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer. Like Curb, Clear History is a tightly plotted comedy with a very loose internal structure. In every scene, actors know they have to go from A to B, and maybe even say certain lines – but how they do it is up to them. It’s improv comedy of the highest order, and Clear History is full of actors who make the most of it.

It’s a genuine pleasure, for example, to see Michael Keaton in an all-out comedy role again, playing his islander outsider like a cranky modern Popeye. And Kate Hudson, as the beautiful wife of Hamm’s business tycoon, exploding unexpectedly in a wildly funny series of reactions after David’s Rolly does something typically inappropriate.

Also having fun in supporting roles are J.B. Smoove, always one of David’s best ad lib players on Curb; Bill Hader, as Keaton’s off-kilter right hand man; Danny McBride, as Rolly’s best friend; Eva Mendes and Amy Ryan, in small but playful parts; and Liev Schreiber, in an uncredited but noticeable role as a ponytailed Russian mobster.

Clear History is a self-contained comedy confection that uses the rock group Chicago almost as a Greek chorus, is loaded with recurring sight gags about off-road rights of way and electrical outlets, and basically shines with the same self-assured playfulness as Curb. Oh, and David’s early scenes with Hamm, where the two argue about the name and the special features of the Howard, are as much fun to watch as they must have been to film.

Larry David, like Christopher Guest on the big screen, has developed a fabulous system for turning improvisational comedy into full-length stories. Guest’s are looser and more episodic; David weaves everything together cleverly, so that, at the end, all the pieces click together, like tumblers falling into place to open a safe.

And, it’s safe to say, you’re bound to enjoy the results. Clear History, for Larry David, is another clear winner.

(For my full-length NPR Fresh Air with Terry Gross review of Clear History, and of AMC's premiere of Low Winter Sun and the midseason return of Breaking Bad, listen to tomorrow's show on the radio or online, or check my Fresh Air archive Friday afternoon.)

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