In the HBO original movie Clear History, premiering Saturday night, Larry David plays one character with two distinct looks, names and lives, none of which can obscure Larry David’s essential Larry David-ness, his particular moral imperative to be an asshole. David is like the opposite of Meryl Streep: He slips into costume not to become someone else, but to prove there is no someone else who cannot be sublimated by Larry David, steadfast deliverer of a very specific kind of cringing belly laugh. Clear History often feels—pleasantly—like an extended episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but as directed by Greg Mottola, it accrues an unexpected ethical heft. There are consequences for being a jerk, and none of them are felt more profoundly than by the jerk himself.
Clear History, largely improvised from a 35-page treatment, opens in 2003, with David playing a man named Nathan Flomm. (It is a good sign, in the This Is Spinal Tap vein, when even the character names are funny). Flomm has an ownership stake in an electric car company, a long gray beard, and even longer gray hair, a get-up that renders David unrecognizable. (He looks like Bob Odenkirk dressed as a Geico caveman.) But when Flomm’s business partner and boss Will Haney (Jon Hamm) introduces Flomm to his young son’s nanny, who has her hair up in a braid, and Flomm becomes neurotically, obsessively fixated on how often she washes her hair, it becomes clear—Larry David cannot hide his light under a Yeti costume.
Through a series of self-sabotaging honesties—Flomm has the Davidian devotion to truth over self-preservation, kindness, or civility—Flomm finds himself out of the company, which almost immediately thereafter transforms into a huge success. Flomm becomes widely known as the idiot who lost out on a billion dollars, and in quick succession, his job, his wife, his house, and his hair. And so he flees. The movie picks up 10 years later, in Martha’s Vineyard, where Flomm—who now resembles Larry David—has made a full life for himself among people who know him only as Rolly DaVore. At his very well-attended surprise birthday party, Rolly overhears an acquaintance describe him as “the nicest guy I know,” which is a little odd, since Rolly seems to be an only slightly toned-down version of Larry David. It’s possible to imagine people liking him, but he’s too persnickety and high-maintenance to be the nicest guy anyone knows. He punches people when flustered. He hassles waitresses about how they clean their tables. He stews on ex-girlfriends’ sexual dalliances.
Rolly’s decade of peace is interrupted when Will and his new wife, Rhonda (Kate Hudson), buy a house on the island. Will doesn’t recognize Rolly, but the proximity is too much. As Rolly tells a friend, it makes him feel too terrible, too foolish, too wronged to be around that guy, so he decides to seek vengeance on Haney, concocting a plot that includes Michael Keaton, Bill Hader, Danny McBride, Liev Schreiber, Eva Mendes, and many more, each and every actor having a ball improvising a different type of weirdo.
At the start, the movie feels baggy. A conversation between Hamm and David about installing pee-flaps in cars (you know, a chute men can just pee in while driving)plays like an excuse to hear Jon Hamm say the word “balls”—an understandable desire, though not a dramatically incisive one. But as the movie proceeds, it gains traction, first as a kind of pleasant alt-Woody Allen vehicle—neurotic middle-aged man, gorgeous setting, famous actors spouting witty dialogue—and then as a well-modulated morality play. Rolly fought off his dickishness for a decade but, driven by jealousy, regret, and vengeance, descends back into the muck. Clear History has a light, ironic touch, but it’s ultimately merciless about what that trip back to the stink costs: everything that Nathan Flomm and Rolly DaVore ever wanted, many times over. A nicer guy would have finished first, but he wouldn’t have been nearly as funny to watch.