“Clear History” is packed with talent, beginning with Jon Hamm, who’d better get an Emmy for “Mad Men” this year or the Hellmouth will open up and devour the voters. Choice comics Danny McBride, Bill Hader, and JB Smoove are on board this Massachusetts-filmed HBO comedy, and so are the versatile Liev Schreiber, Michael Keaton, and Amy Ryan. Director Greg Mottola’s resume includes the superfine indie “The Daytrippers,” as well as “Superbad” and “Adventureland.”
And Larry David is also onboard. I can’t emphasize that enough. Larry David, one of comedy’s most influential writers and performers of the past few decades, plays the lead character in “Clear History.” And ultimately, little else matters. All of the other performers in this project almost disappear behind the vastness of Larry David’s overwhelming Larry Davidness. So if you don’t like the guy or his bellowing kvetches — he also co-wrote the film — you have no business here.
Alas, even if you do like David’s shtick, as I do, you have no business here. The movie, which premieres Saturday night at 9, plays out something like an extra-long but subpar episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Many fans are hungering for a new season of “Curb,” which last aired in 2011; David hasn’t made up his mind about whether he’ll make more episodes. “I’m an indecisive fellow,” he said last month. “You should see me in a restaurant.” But don’t expect “Clear History” to fill the void. Even when David and Smoove bat around race jokes as they do so buoyantly on “Curb,” the comedy is stubbornly second-rate.
David plays marketing expert Nathan Flomm, but let’s be honest. He essentially plays Larry from “Curb,” with all his trademark hygienic neuroses and self-justification issues. The story begins in 2003, when Nathan, with long hair and a beard, has a falling out with his boss, Jon Hamm’s Will Haney. The issue: Nathan hates the name of the company’s new electric car, the Howard, named after Will’s son. He quits, the car is massively successful, and Nathan misses out on a billion-dollar share. A public shaming ensues, with a viral video of Nathan throwing a fit and print sidebars about Nathan’s epic fail attached to stories about Will’s epic success.
The movie cuts to the present tense. Nathan has moved to Martha’s Vineyard, cut off his hair and beard, and changed his name to Rolly DaVore. He is now a humbled guy with lots of friends, including McBride’s Frank, and he rolls his eyes every time he sees a Howard drive by. All is fine until multibillionaire Will decides to build a rambling McMansion on the Vineyard. Nathan is furious, even though, preposterously, Will doesn’t even recognize Nathan without his hair. Nathan begins plotting his revenge, with the help of a few shady types played by Hader and an almost unrecognizable Keaton.
Throughout, Nathan spews his twisted opinions and endlessly tries to prove he’s right, just as Larry does on “Curb.” And none of it is fresh. He complains about why electrical outlets are so low, causing people to have to get on the floor to plug and unplug; he obsesses about why car manufacturers don’t put “pee flaps” in cars so that men can urinate while driving; he refuses to respond to birthday e-mails, because that turns a birthday into a job. It all feels like “Curb”-cutting-room-floor material set atop a feeble plotline and a group of unrealized and disposable supporting performances. “Clear History” is pretty, pretty average.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.