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The Schmooze

Larry David by Another Name Is Just as Obnoxious

It’s hard to tell sometimes whether Larry David is experimental or just lazy.

Image by Courtesy of HBO

Consider all of those characters playing themselves, or some version of themselves, on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Richard Lewis, Wanda Sykes, Larry David himself. Is that a bold blending of reality and fiction or is it all he’s got to work with?

David’s latest outing, the HBO movie “Clear History” (which aired August 10 and will be out on DVD this fall), begs the question again. The story and setting are far from the comfortable Hollywood environment of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but the character is the same “Larry David” — only this time masquerading under a different name. Is this some kind of conceptual feat, or just the inability to come up with anything new?

At the start of “Clear History” we see David, playing a character named Nathan Flomm, cruising down the California highway in a convertible, long hair and beard flowing in the wind. He’s a Silicon Valley marketing guru, working for an about-to-take-off electric car company. But thanks to a typically stubborn, “Larry David”-esque argument over the car’s name — his boss, played by Jon Hamm, wants to call it the “Howard” after both his son and the hero of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” — he quits and cashes in his stock, which turns out to be a gigantic, billion-dollar mistake.

One divorce, foreclosure and public humiliation later, Flomm — now a more recognizable bald and beardless David — retreats incognito to Martha’s Vineyard under the name Rolly DaVore. To support himself he goes to work as the assistant (of sorts) to a wealthy old lady and remakes his life amidst a friendly crowd of blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth islanders.

On the face of it, this sounds very different from David’s “Curb” role as the wealthy “Seinfeld” co-creator that he is, who can afford to make up his own rules of social etiquette. Here David is playing a working class guy who may be a bit eccentric, but is in no position to abuse everyone around him.

Yet the character is the same: A stubborn, obnoxious man with an inappropriate fixation on arbitrary details (the height of wall sockets, for example), who is absolutely unwilling to compromise when he thinks he’s in the right. Rolly infuriates the waitress at the local diner by criticizing how she lays out the silverware, interferes in his friends’ relationships, and confronts his ex about whether she did or did not give blow jobs to members of the band Chicago when they passed through town 20 years ago. It’s the same old Larry, pretty much.

So is David just reusing old tricks, or is he onto something bigger? Perhaps it’s both. As an actor David’s not bad, but he’s got a limited range. And while his comedic vein is rich (he is, after all, responsible for much of “Seinfeld”), it’s just one vein. So using the same character in a different role is a reasonable move. Who says that every character has to be unique? Maybe the same guy, in a different situation, could be equally interesting.

And that’s the case here. The headstrong domestic worker (granted, the job part of it strains credulity) is just as entertaining as the Hollywood bigwig with his showbiz friends. In the fluid space of fiction there’s no reason why a character can only exist in one context. What David just proved is that his little masterpiece of a man — previously known as “Larry David” — is far more universal than we knew. He might work at a Silicon Valley startup; he might live in your little blue-collar town. It’s like those people you meet who seem uncannily like people you already know. (And yes, “Seinfeld” also did a lot with that idea.) Maybe it’s more interesting, even, than having a character who is actually new.

Watch a preview for ‘Clear History’:

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