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Review: Larry David's 'Clear History' showcases some 'Curb' control

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Larry David, who is on a break from his series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" — permanent or not, he will let you know — returns to HBO on Saturday with a full-on movie-type movie, "Clear History," in which he plays not his usual fictionalized self but an entirely different character, albeit one composed of all the old familiar tics. The obsessions are here, as is the self-obsession.

At the beginning of the film, set a decade before the main body of the action, he sports a full head of long hair and a long beard, which make him look, possibly not by coincidence, like "Curb" director and "Seinfeld" writer Larry Charles. But soon enough he will look like the Larry you know.

David plays Nathan Flomm, a Clio-winning marketing exec who, like the David of "Curb," is undone by his inability to concede a point or quit scratching an itch or keep molehills from growing into mountains. Here, he gives back his share in an electric car company because its CEO (Jon Hamm) wants to name a new electric car after his son, who is named after the hero of "The Fountainhead," a fact that irritates Nathan on several levels.

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"Nobody's going to buy a car named Howard; it's like calling a restaurant Hepatitis." The car is an enormous success, however, losing Nathan a billion dollars, which turns him into a national laughingstock, destroys his career, ends his marriage and makes his hair fall out.

We meet him again years later on Martha's Vineyard, living happily under an assumed name, looking not like Larry Charles but Larry David. That he is working as a caregiver to a cantankerous old lady and has a large complement of new friends, who treat him as one of the best fellows ever, suggests he has become a more relaxed person in the interim.

Yet once we are watching him — and once Hamm's character arrives coincidentally on the island to build a large house, prompting a revenge plot — David will do what he's best at. (Perhaps, as an actor, it's all he really can do.) Soon Nathan is causing himself grief over the silverware in his local diner, the right-of-way on a dirt road and a rumored incident in the sexual history of an ex-girlfriend (Amy Ryan, who played Holly on "The Office"). It's a particularly, and unusually, unfortunate plot point, but it does allow for a cameo appearance by the band Chicago.

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As with Larry in "Curb," the fact that Nathan is right about most things is both the point and a thing that makes no difference to his misfortunes. What is different here is that the characters David surrounds himself with are drawn affectionately, in the traditional way of small-town eccentrics; they aren't the Southern California grotesques he tends to meet and know. And it softens his own character as well.

Written by David with Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer — with the dialogue, as his custom, largely improvised — and directed by Greg Mottola ("Adventureland"), it plays in many ways like a leisurely, bucolic version of "Curb," with a larger cast of characters and something like a "journey" for the main character. The supergroup cast, none playing a version of him or herself, includes Danny McBride (in approximately the position Jeff Garlin occupies on "Curb"), "Curb" foil J.B. Smoove, Kate Hudson, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes, Bill Hader and an uncredited Liev Schreiber.

If it doesn't have quite the compressed power of a "Curb" episode, it's in part because we know Larry David in a way that we don't know Nathan Flomm (who may strike us here as a man doing an imitation of Larry David). Still, the comic TV movie has become a rare thing (if you factor out the Lifetime and Hallmark rom-coms); its return is welcome.

And, with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on indefinite hiatus, it's good to taste that special flavor again — an ice cream for a summer night.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

'Clear History'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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