Larry David Is Back, Enthusiasm A Bit Curbed

Give Larry David long hippie hair and a big brown beard and he’s still Larry David. Call him Nathan Flomm and he’s still Larry David. Make him a marketing genius and he’s still Larry David.

That’s the primary takeaway from “Clear History,” David’s feature-length comic film that begins airing on HBO Saturday night. And that should be good news, right? His HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” took David’s “Seinfeld” humor (pretty great to begin with) to a whole new level of television comedy and Jewish neurosis. No wonder Woody Allen chose him to star in “Whatever Works.”

With David still noncommittal about another season of “Curb,” it’s reassuring to have him back on HBO. His Flomm works for an Ayn Rand-loving executive played by Jon Hamm who names his son, Howard, after the individualistic protagonist of “The Fountainhead.” He also decides to name his new eco-car, the Howard, prompting Flomm to quit over the idiocy of the name. Faster than you can say, “Atlas Shrugged,” it turns out that Flomm walked out on a billion dollars and he moves to Martha’s Vineyard with a new identity and a new look – the real Larry David look.

Jon Hamm and Larry David in "Clear History." (John P. Johnson/HBO)
Jon Hamm and Larry David in "Clear History." (John P. Johnson/HBO)

On paper it’s the reverse of the David “Curb” character, who made more money than he knows what to do with for writing “Seinfeld.” On film, though, it’s the same character — saying the wrong thing to the wrong person; getting into transgressive territory talking about race (J.B. Smoove, his hilarious “Curb” foil, is back); obsessing about everything from public toilets to details about a former girlfriend (played by Amy Ryan) — to wit, how many members of Chicago did she have oral sex with when they played on the Vineyard 20 years earlier. (Alas, Chicago’s music is heard throughout the film. It’s funny for about 15 seconds and then it’s just, well, Chicago.)

Like Woody Allen, David can assemble a who’s who of high-priced acting talent — Hamm, Ryan, Eva Mendes, Kate Hudson, Michael Keaton and an uncredited and very funny Liev Schrieber, a great stage actor who keeps getting stuck on dopey TV shows like “Ray Donovan.” Local comedians Lenny Clarke and Jimmy Tingle are among his poker-playing pals. Director Greg Mottola (“Arrested Development”) is a witty filmmaker.

For all that, it’s just not as good as “Curb.” If you’re going to break out of the mold, break out. This feels like “Miami Vice” goes to Albuquerque. What’s the point? And it isn’t even the Vineyard since David, a longtime part-time resident, couldn’t shoot there and went to the North Shore instead.

That’s not a big deal in itself, but little things add up. Hamm, as he’s shown in “30 Rock” and other films, isn’t much of a comic actor (and it’s preposterous that his character doesn’t recognize Nathan Flomm when they reunite). Keaton is over the top. Plot developments telegraph themselves.

But it’s good for chuckles, most of which come from David’s typical running commentary on life as in “I don’t think that salmon was wild, by the way.”

OK, good enough. If we can’t have that other Larry David engaging in wild sex with a Palestinian nationalist or going toe to toe with a holier-than-thou Jewish zealot then I can settle for Nathan Flomm. But not with as much enthusiasm as for that other HBO show.

This program aired on August 6, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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