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Curb Appeal

In the fourth episode of the second season of Curb Your Enthusiasm , Larry David accuses a (fictitious) HBO president of stealing shrimp from his Chinese takeout-in the middle of a pitch meeting, no less. What chutzpah! This is a stand-in for his actual boss . The bespectacled executive is obviously offended, and the meeting descends into anarchy, with Mr. David storming out.

You knew it was coming. You knew that to the stubborn, neurotic, nebbishy Mr. David, a sense of moral rectitude about the most trivial indiscretion is more important than the betterment of his career.

And the delicious irony is that this attitude has been for the betterment of his career. Rivaled only by The Office at its best, Curb Your Enthusiasm is the funniest thing you will see on television. It’s like sex, pizza, etc.: Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

Famous people practically line up to be berated and humiliated by Mr. David. This is because the show is a sublime rarity: It has integrity. Nothing and no one-not Mr. David’s Jewish brethren, not his celebrity friends and family, not his boss and not even, of course, Mr. David himself-are sacred. The only thing the protagonist holds dear is his (often seemingly arbitrary) principles, to which he clings with a self-destructive obstinacy.

On June 15, HBO Video released the complete second season of the widely popular show, which just completed its fourth season, and the 300-minute, $40 offering only hammers home the fact that Mr. David was the real comedic genius behind Seinfeld . Curb is part social commentary, part French farce-all wrapped up in the guise of being about a cranky middle-aged guy from New York.

[ Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Complete Second Season , 2000, NR, 300 minutes, $39.90.]

Two Takes on Toulouse

John Huston’s 1952 biopic Moulin Rouge is a beautifully rendered interpretation of the life of French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec-famous for his buoyant and effervescent paintings of the titular club’s cancan dancers. It’s tempting to compare Mr. Huston’s vibrant depiction of the Moulin Rouge with Baz Luhrmann’s colorfully hyperactive 2001 version. Both films won Academy Awards in the same two categories: Art Direction and Costume Design. Both were denied Best Picture statues.

But the similarities end there. Mr. Luhrmann’s vision is a frenetic, dizzying kaleidoscope-he might has well have been on speed. Mr. Huston has equal facility with color, but the images are more static, saturated and intense. This intensity is a blessing, since rarely can the actors carry a scene on their own. José Ferrer plays Lautrec, whose legs are stunted by a boyhood accident. Ostracized by his rural community, Lautrec flees to Paris to pursue a career as an artist and descends into alcoholism. Ferrer is definitely up to the task of playing this lonely fellow, but the character’s tumultuous romance with an obnoxious vamp, played by Colette Marchand, feels flat, and much of the rest of the film suffers from bad, stodgy dialogue uttered in equally bad French accents.

But the contrast between the lively, jovial atmosphere of Gay Paree and the misanthropic, dour Lautrec is skillfully exploited in radiant color. This baby packs a punch!

[ Moulin Rouge , 1952, NR, 119 minutes, $14.95.]

Plagued by Locust

First published in 1939, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust is considered by too many to be the quintessential Hollywood novel. The fact is, Mr. West’s novels are fundamentally uncinematic. Their plots are weak, their episodic narrative lurching forward on waves of stilted feeling. His characters are warped and distorted caricatures: faces pulled into grimaces, limb-clutching cartoons.

When Paramount commissioned John Schlesinger to shoot this beautifully seething jumble in the mid-70’s, it did so as part of a misguided campaign to reclaim the success and glory of another period piece, The Godfather . But Mr. West’s mongrel town of unfulfilled yet unforgotten dreams wasn’t what Mr. Schlesinger captured on celluloid. With the help of his cinematographer, the overtly theatrical Conrad Hall, he manipulated the jagged mess with diffuse light, fawning colors, sparkling gowns and sweeping camera angles, eulogizing exactly what Mr. West criticized so vehemently. Perhaps Mr. Schlesinger intended to pay Mr. West the ultimate compliment by rendering cinematically his angry Hollywood reflections, but he seems to have missed the mark entirely, bathing in this world half-consciously rather than peering into it with sorrow.

Very broadly, Mr. West’s novel is about a painting ( The Burning of Los Angeles ) inspired by various moments and characters experienced by the young painter Tod Hackett, played by an unusually handsome William Atherton. Populating his landscape most centrally are Faye Greener, a repulsive starlet (played by a worryingly cross-eyed Karen Black), and Homer Simpson, the ultimate nonentity (played with predictable deliberation by Donald Sutherland). But for all Mr. Schlesinger’s misapplied conventionality, these characters remain too abstract in the film, and the violent climax feels bombastic and preposterous rather than meaningful.

In a scene where studio exec Claude Estee asks Hackett about his work, he describes it as “early earthquake.” To which Estee responds: “They’re probably a little too facile for your own good.” This same comment could be leveled at the film’s director.

[ The Day of the Locust , 1975, R, 144 minutes, $14.99.]

-Jessica Joffe

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