For all that Larry David owes his truly astonishing fortune to his writing, his work rarely attempts to present itself as the work of someone highly literate; at least, not in the way that we usually imagine the well-read writer’s writer. That archetype seems better embodied by someone like Woody Allen, whose interests have overlapped with David’s before and as recently as the 2009 comedy Whatever Works, finally inserting David as an Allen archetype, full stop.
But while Allen’s catalogue of references and homages run somewhat deeper and more respectable than the shout-outs to Superman comics on Seinfeld and the David character’s affinity for Paul Simon and Rawhide on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the comic bard which David’s late-career scripts most resemble is one of the most respectable of all, whose acolytes still refer to as ‘The Master’: P.G. Wodehouse, crafter of countless disastrous dinner parties and weekends in the countryside.
Wodehouse characters, including but not limited to the beloved Jeeves and Wooster, frequently find themselves trapped within labyrinths of social etiquette, which they fail to observe either through some lapse of character or pure ignorance. They do so within a farcical world made up entirely of bored aristocrats with little else to trouble them but the theft of cow-creamers or the breaking of an engagement, much like the David character must concern himself with replacing a child’s doll or engaging in a “stop-‘n’-chat” to secure his social standing and continued prosperity.
The plots, often more in the vein of Raymond Chandler than another comic writer, pull together several such instances of social obligation to ensnare the protagonist, vise-like, until rescue arrives. In Wodehouse, salvation takes the form of Jeeves the trusty valet or the schemer Psmith, often resulting in a marriage. Wodehouse does so because he writes many characters that exist within a larger universe in which all these trivial concerns can fade away and conservative values still exist; David writes, famously, “about nothing”, and his plots often cut off at the moment of maximum humiliation, offering his stand-in nothing in the way of salvation or relief from disgrace. These are punchy, often thrilling finalés for a half-hour sitcom. They do not make for a compelling conclusion to a feature film.
Clear History deserves treatment in context with Curb Your Enthusiasm not least because David’s Nathan Flomm is a creation clearly meant to place ‘Larry David’ in a different context and watch him fail to cope with certain pressures and self-destruct in a way that the metafictional David never could, but because its language and plot patterns are very much the stuff of the sitcom that have not translated well to feature film. Flomm’s cantankerous qualities mean that he only really separates himself from David in the opening scenes, set years before the rest of the narrative, in which David sports long hair and the sort of beard grown during a stay at the Chateau d’If. After the years pass and haircuts ensue, the character is indistinguishable from the fictional David.
Clear History starts things off with Flomm making a mistake that ostensibly ruins his life, choosing to give up his shares in an auto maker that has developed the Howard, a revolutionary electric car which makes all involved billionaires, spearheaded by Will Haney (Jon Hamm). The early scenes are shockingly unimaginative for a writer who has lampooned the pettiness of the rich and successful so creatively for years, a single scene featuring Flomm at a dinner party in the aftermath of his big mistake offering only plot exposition, almost rushed through as if to get to the Martha’s Vineyard setting where the rest of the story plays out.
Flomm, humiliated on national television for his blunder, takes on a new identity as Rolly DaVore, befriends a local community ignorant of his history (there’s the weirdly obscure title reference), and seems largely happy until the sudden appearance of Haney triggers a resurgence of his pettiness and the concoction of a Rand-inspired revenge plan, which isn’t all that inspired at all.
Freed of episodic narrative, David chooses rather bizarrely to hang his film around a plot that can support the kind of waffling and improvisational flourishes that give his show its flavor but just sort of hamper a feature-length narrative with numerous dead-end diversions, like the one-way country road where a key confrontation plays out. The plot seems an excuse for the David character to wreak havoc on ordinary people and investigate how the social dynamic works when all involved no longer have blankets of privilege to overshadow their trivial concerns. But the people of Flomm’s new home still have good lives, even if they’re not billionaires, so any class differentials are largely undetectable.
Visually, we might as well be watching a long episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, though it largely forgoes the trademark handheld photography. The film features some panoramas and a stable camera, but it’s still mostly TV mise-en-scène dictated by its philosophy of improvisation: dominated by the traditional two-camera setup to allow each actor room to play. Long shots only enter the action when allowed by functional plot moments that don’t allow for mixing up the direction, like the climactic moments of Flomm’s naturally futile attempt to thwart his own revenge scheme.
The major twist, in which the reason for Haney’s move to Martha’s Vineyard is revealed, plays like a parody of such a scene, which makes sense in the context of David’s entire career and how he generally treats similar developments and adherences to expected narrative structure. It does beg the question of why his film wasn’t built around a better hook, though, since Haney’s predicament makes Flomm seem even more insensitive. This is a sensible development for the script’s contemptuous treatment of Flomm and his feat of turning an entire town against him after a birthday party scene in which he struts about like a proud son. On the other hand, it’s typical of Clear History’s approach: to repeat, with middling effort, the successes of the past, and to rush through new wrinkles in the formula with as much contempt as possible.
Extras: Enjoy your HBO trailers!