The character Larry David portrays in “Clear History,” his new HBO movie, is very close to the version of himself he plays in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — only this guy impulsively threw away a fortune, instead of co-creating “Seinfeld” and making one. The clever premise, however, gets largely lost in the “Curb”-like elements of David’s role, suggesting he might have been better advised to either funnel these energies into his series (whose future remains uncertain) or produce a movie with a different star. As is, this summer lark has its moments but hardly merits hitting the “save” button.
Introduced in 2003 with a wild mane of hair that resembles the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” Nathan Flomm (David), is the marketing guru at a small startup company, where the resident genius, Will Haney (Jon Hamm), has developed an electric car. Yet when Will enthusiastically unveils his proposed name for the product — the Howard, after his young son — Nathan publicly ridicules it, not just quitting, but handing back his 10% stake in the company.
Flash forward, and the Howard has taken the world by storm, making everyone involved — except Nathan, naturally — a billionaire. The humiliation of his situation has prompted Nathan to attempt to erase his past (hence the title) by moving to Martha’s Vineyard, shaving his locks (thank goodness) and assuming a different identity.
That reverie is shattered, naturally, when Will arrives on the island, buying a massive home with his trophy wife (Kate Hudson). The intrusion prompts Nathan to begin plotting revenge, introducing an elaborate screwball caper component to the plot.
Written by David and his “Curb” team of Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer, and directed by Greg Mottola, “Clear History” employs the same improvisational approach, and similarly loads up on guest stars, including an uncredited Liev Schreiber as a criminal lowlife, Eva Mendes as a local girl who has rather spectacularly gotten over her weight problem and “Curb’s” J.B. Smoove, who in his first encounter with Nathan provides one of the few genuinely hilarious moments.
Still, there’s so much riffing on minutia — such as when an apology really counts; or the etiquette of backing up on a one-lane road — that the stand-alone movie is crowded into a corner at times by David’s own highly lucrative neuroses. And while it’s fun to see the band Chicago drawn into a subplot about the sexual history of Nathan’s ex (Amy Ryan) — or savor an in-joke playing off the name of HBO CEO Richard Plepler — even some of those intricately woven gags feel like a bit of a distraction.
Given David’s “I’ll do more when I’m ready” attitude when it comes to producing “Curb,” it’s hard to fault HBO for letting him indulge in this flight of fancy, particularly given all the marquee names he attracts. Still, without an ability to focus those appetites, “Clear History” yields the occasional chuckle, but somewhat curbed enthusiasm.