On Breaking Bad, a big piece of the Walter White puzzle that drove a seemingly mild-mannered chemistry teacher to deadly drug kingpin, aside from his cancer and generally milquetoast life, was the need to regain the millions he lost when he bowed out of Gray Matter Industries for a measly $5,0000. A life filled with regret and the unrelenting feeling that you've been cheated out of a fortune you helped create can drive a man to do some crazy things.
In this weekend's HBO movie Clear History, Larry David's character Nathan Flomm goes through a similar set of circumstances, but reacts just a little bit differently. He's a different kind of stubborn sociopath: the patented Larry David brand we've all come to know and love/hate on Seinfeld (via his on-screen stand-in, George) and Curb Your Enthusiasm. No, he doesn't kill any kids like Walter (though at one point he comes close to accidentally killing a few) but he does lose all his marbles… and his hair.
Let it be clear, however, that Clear History doesn't even come close to the dark brilliance of Breaking Bad. No, this is more like an extended episode of Curb (and a pretty mediocre one at that) mixed with the A-list cast of a Woody Allen flick (and a pretty mediocre one, at that).
The problem with an extended episode of Curb, which is brilliant in its own demented way, is that Larry David's idiosyncrasies can grate even the most patient of fans, and jokes that tie up nicely in the span of 30 minutes drag an hour too long here and are repeated far too many times. The longest-running gag – for lack of a better word – in Clear History is various men being horrified at the idea of their girlfriends orally satisfying various members of the band Chicago. If you're not laughing now, you definitely won't be after it's repeated about a dozen times throughout the movie.
We first meet David's (who co-wrote the script with Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer) Nathan Flomm back in 2003 as a neurotic hippie (who knew such a thing could exist?) working as a marketing consultant for a burgeoning electric car company. Nathan spends his days complaining about the low placement of electrical outlets ("Why can't they be at eye level?"... "What are they, like genitals?"), brainstorming terrible ideas like having a "pee tube" in a car, and insulting a woman for only washing her hair once a week.
Unfortunately, the movie never gets as funny as the sight gig of Larry David donning a Hawaiian shirt and a ZZ Top beard. Nor is there a scene funnier than Nathan and his boss Will (played by Jon Hamm) bickering over said "pee tube" and whether or not an apology has to be sincere to work. When Nathan leaves his job over a dispute with Will over the name of their car (the "Howard," Nathan cries, is not a good name for an automobile), he takes a puny ten percent of a company that eventually makes billions. He can't find work, he loses his wife and becomes a national laughing stock.
Nathan changes his look and identity (though we never find out how he has become completely untraceable) and moves to Martha's Vineyard, where we find him a decade later living a simple, happy (well, as happy as a nebbish-y Larry David-type can be) life as a man named Rolly. No one in the town knows his past: not his poker friends, not the crochety lady he looks after and not even his ex-girlfriend Wendy (an underutilized Amy Ryan).
That all comically goes to shit when Will and his family (including his stock beautiful wife Rhonda, played by Kate Hudson) move to Martha's Vineyard and Nathan/Rolly does everything in his power to keep his identity secret and get Will off the island. He concocts a scheme with local idiot Joe Stumpo (Michael Keaton, having more fun than anyone else in this movie) to blow up the massive house, win Rhonda's heart and turn Will (an underwritten character that see-saws between raging asshole and cancer-stricken saint) into the punch line he was for so long.
The real problem here isn't Nathan's misguided evil plotting, per se, but the bigger plot hole that while Nathan looked pretty different, Will certainly would have recognized that distinctive whiny voice from a hundred miles away. Better yet, how did Rolly get this reputation in town as a nice guy when he's the same annoying, nagging prick that he was before?
But it's not even suspending disbelief that's the biggest misstep in Clear History. (After all, most comedies ask us to do that). No, it's the waste of a tremendously talented cast and a band of characters that all belong in different, better movies. Liev Schrieber absolutely kills it as a Chechnyan criminal and Danny McBride gets in a few good zingers at Rolly's expense as his pal, but they hardly move the story and most of the cast provides no real purpose in the movie. J.B. Smoove gets to, more or less, revive his Curb role of Larry David's foil. Here, they bicker about racism among midgets and Eva Mendes is used as a sight gag as a formerly fat woman with a heavy accent. (Sadly, none of the females in this movie provide much besides fodder for jokes about blow jobs and their attractiveness).
It's surprising, really, considering Greg Mottola was at the helm here -- he had such a clear, concise view and execution with the criminally underrated Adventureland. There are some solid laughs to be found in Clear History, but they are just too few and far between and then beaten into the ground. It's a tried and true Larry David comedy of errors (there are misunderstandings and sad sack missed opportunities galore) that just makes too many of its own to join the ranks of Curb or Seinfeld.
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