‘The Holdovers’ movie review: Brilliant Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti give us a moody Christmas miracle

A still from ‘‘The Holdovers’

A still from ‘‘The Holdovers’

It’s impossible not to reminisce about Alexander Payne’s previous collaboration with Paul Giamatti, Sideways (2004), while watching The Holdovers. 

In both films, Giamatti plays a mopey, curmudgeonly sad sack of a teacher, forever burdened by the weight of unrealised potential, a lack of romantic entanglement and an unfinished epic book project; men defined not so much by what they have achieved, but more by what could have been. If Sideways introduced to the world at large an actor-director duo to watch out for, The Holdovers cements their legacy as amongst the finest.

Taking place in 1970s New England, Payne’s latest sets up shop at an all-boys boarding school called Barton during the winter holidays where an unlikely trio find themselves in the (unwanted) company of each other. 

There’s professor Paul Hunham (Giamatti), the most acerbic and pompous of professors who teaches ancient civilizations and particularly delights in making life hell for all his privileged students with insufferable factoids and eccentric insults (Listen, you hormonal vulgarian!”). Paul has strabismus (both eyes do not line up in the same direction) and also trimethylaminuria, a metabolic condition giving him a foul body odor, making him an easy target for the kids — and even members of the staff — to make fun of.

The Holdovers (English)

Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa

Run-time: 133 minutes

Storyline: While stuck on campus during Christmas break, a curmudgeonly instructor forms an unlikely bond with a troublemaker student and the school’s head cook, who has just lost her son in Vietnam

Then we have Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa in a dazzling breakout performance), a bright but somewhat troublesome student whose honeymooning mother and new husband have left him behind and now can’t be reached over the phone, a fact that has hurt him deeply but which he tries to cover up with a facade of sarcastic quips and flailing bravado. Angus is already depressed about the whereabouts of his father (a heartbreaking reveal is in order) and vows to not let Hunham suck all the joy out of this forced time at school.

And completing the oddball gang is the cafeteria’s head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a recently-bereaved mother mourning her son Curtis, a graduate of Barton who died in the Vietnam War. Mary took up the job only so that her son could attend a school of this stature, but now spends her days smoking and drinking, trying to forget what she has lost; the whole school is sympathetic to her plight, but she still has to deal with all the unsaid challenges that come with being a Black woman in the 70s.

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa in a still from ‘The Holdovers’

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa in a still from ‘The Holdovers’

From then on, the three jaunt along a charming if predictable path, and each of them learn there’s more to their personalities than meets the eye. Secrets are shared, traumas are unearthed, and eventually, bonds are forged in their shared experiences of being disappointed by life. There’s even an off-kilter Christmas party, an almost-romance, and a road trip all thrown in for good measure, as the story winds down with the softest of emotional wallops.

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This is Payne’s eighth feature, and he is in spectacular control over the script written by David Hemingson. As in Sideways, the narrative is always sprinkled with the specific kind of melancholy and tragic humour that the director specialises in, and he has the perfect actor in Gimmatti to execute his vision. But there’s also a smattering of themes from his other outings like About Schmidt, The Descendants and Nebraska, though Payne ensures he retains the distinct specific spirit of 70s American cinema throughout, even using fake grain and scratches to make it seem like the movie was shot on film instead of digital.

Easily the director and actor’s finest work since their merry wine jaunt 20 years ago, it should stand them both in good stead at the Oscars next month; the other shoo-in, of course, being Joy Randolph for best supporting actress.

Above all, The Holdovers is a moody little reminder that clichés and life lessons can never go out of style, and that nobody really does disappointment better than Payne.

The Holdovers is currently running in theatres

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