From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).
In The Holdovers there is the pleasure of watching two wounded, intelligent characters give as well they get. They’re is also the joy of seeing them form a sincere friendship. And since this happens around Christmas, there is the bonus of a holiday miracle.
The Holdovers takes place circa 1970 in a New England all boys boarding school, amongst a cadre of students unable to go back home, for various reasons, for the Christmas holiday recess- and one curmudgeonly professor played with rakish wit and latent liberal social conscious by Paul Giammatti.
Paul Hunham (note the barely human peaking out from the surname) teaches ancient civilizations and is a principled educator who takes great pride in flunking the lazy, entitled senator’s son. He uses big antiquated sounding words as a verbal club to his student’s retorts, stinks due to a hormonal disorder, and can read everything but the people in the room.
His students live up to the basest level of their privileged existence: setting little traps for Hunham‘s arrogance to fall into, poking metaphoric fingers in his pride and glass eye, pulling mommy and daddy strings when their actual grades threaten to derail their imagined aspirations.
Plot conventions demand that Hunham be matched with his spiritual, intellectual, dejected, lonely arrogant student twin. So an actual deux ex machina drops from the sky in the form of Daddy CEO’s Pratt and Whitney PT6T powered Hughes MD 500 Helicopter to whisk all non-necessary student characters to an all expense paid ski trip for the Christmas recess, leaving Hunham and the almost cool only-child, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa in a revelatory acting debut) to club, slug and bud it out for the rest of The Holdovers.
From then on, the audience is in the capable hands of Alexander Payne, the master of the quarrelsome comedy with heart, soul, and expertly delivered emotional and verbal zingers. The Holdovers has more comic sharpness; more on point attitude; more old character chestnuts cracked open, roasted, slightly reinvented to look new and delicious; more emotional wisdom than any other Payne movie. Surprisingly, all of it works, making it Payne’s. most self-assured, near masterpiece, and definitely a Christmas classic.
Payne has refined his style that it now brings out nothing but his best. He has an almost Shakespearean ability for developing, showing and defining personal tragedies. He knows how to weave crudeness and discourtesy with reassuring and crowd pleasing stitches of sweetness. How to weave it further into the character tapestry when it takes a strand of sweet- revenge, wit, pettiness or justice. How to loom other simultaneously occurring emotional notes into a beautiful, artful whole. This is technique, experience, cinematic knowledge executed flawlessly and smoothly with the famed Lubitsch touch.
Giammati’s Hunham is curmudgeonly without being a pure curmudgeon. Payne never lets him become totally a caricature of the tweedy intellectual. He makes sure Hunham fits within his sweet-tart tapestry. Hunham has a major soft spot, genuine sympathy and empathy for the grief of the black cook who lost her son to the desolation of the Vietnam War- and who was a student, a fine one, at the prep school. Also, Hunham sees reflections of himself in Angus and tries to steer him away from the same mistakes he made. Hunham always exists within the tricky jumble of his last name. For this Paul, The Holdovers is his road to Damascus moment.
The three ailing magi— the professor, cook named Mary (Da’vine Joy Randolph) mourning her dead son and seeking an internal resurrection, and the student- are going on a spiritual road trip of sorts. They go to a party, take a “field trip” day to nearby Boston. The first is the revelatory before the second revelation. To reveal the details would be like spoiling the way grace sneaks up on one when reading the New Testament. It’s best to see and feel it before one understands it.
In his second outing with Payne (Sideways was the first), Giammatti is more acerbic but also more acute. Hunham embraces the wounds of life, the defeats also. He is interactive than reactive, more likely to aid, if it’s a good cause, than runaway into himself. Payne has graced Giammatti with the most emotional and psychologically deep character of his career. His scenes with Randolph and Sessa are affectionate, feel true and funny on a dozen different levels.
Randolph’s Mary is the guide that allows the socially inept duo to go from wise but shy observers dispensing ivory tower retorts to seasoned extroverts who can glib and both see and work the room with style. Randolph’s character is part Hattie McDaniel, part Pearl Bailey. She’s McDaniel rotund but in a different service uniform— Bailey brash confident loud and proud, with a jazz soul that knows the tragic swings of life, even if she can’t fully overcome them at the moment. For now it’s enough for her to sing that sweet, soulful, sad jazz in her performance. She is the emotional soundboard that Payne allows to act and have all measures of abrasiveness, saltiness, delicacy and brightness. She is missed when not in the picture. Payne respects that absence by always letting the audience know where Mary resides at all times.
The Holdovers is Payne’s most earthy film. It’s also the first set in any kind of past. it’s fidelity to that past goes down to using the very MPAA and studio logos of that era. it’s was even shot on 35mm stock.
Yet, The Holdovers. doesn’t ever feel stuck in it’s time. Payne’s letting the viewer in. Updating them and keeping them up to date at the same time. The 70’s may seem like ancient history to current kids. Their parents, know better. For both, Payne has brought it back to sweet aching life.
The Holdovers gets a 4.0out of 5 or an A-.
- August 31, 2023(Telluride)
- October 27, 2023(United States)