Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston
Runtime: 2 hr 13 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Nudity and Coarse Language)
Released By: UIP
Opening Day: 11 January 2024 (The Projector exclusive)
Synopsis: A curmudgeonly instructor at a New England prep school 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 — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam..
Two decades after their corkscrewing caper in Wine Country, Alexander Payne reunites with his ‘Sideways’ lead Paul Giamatti for a bittersweet dramedy of three lost souls stuck in a tony Northeastern prep school during Christmas break. The result – as fans of Payne’s movies should take note – is a welcome return to form for the acclaimed director whose last outing was the unfortunately underwhelming 2017 shrinking-people drama ‘Downsizing’. It also gives Giamatti’s one of his most poignant roles to date, and those familiar with his oeuvre will also recognise such an accolade is no small feat indeed.
Slipping effortlessly into the role of a curmudgeonly professor at the fictional Barton Academy, Giamatti plays Paul Hunham as only the 55-year-old actor can. When we first meet him, Hunham is hunched over his desk grading papers, and the first word we hear out of his mouth is ‘Philistines!’. Single and wall-eyed, you’d probably regard Hunham at first as a pathetic creature. And yet, by the time he runs into an old Harvard schoolmate at the beginning of the third act (where we learn why he’s been stuck at Barton for all his teaching career), you’d already be won over by the man who harbours both vulnerabilities and compassion beneath his irascible exterior.
To his dismay, Hunham is assigned babysitting duties for the “holdovers”, the kids who won’t be going home for the holidays and are thus forced to stay on campus. Chief among them is Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), who was set to go to St. Kitts before his mom disinvites him so she can honeymoon with her deep-pocketed new husband. To his credit, Tully is one of the smarter students in Hunham’s class (and therefore gets less grief from the professor), but there is hardly any joy in his predicament. Though Tully isn’t the only one left behind at the start, he will eventually be the lone student stuck on campus.
While it is only until Hunham and Tully are left with each other that we begin to learn much of anything about either of them, Payne – working off a script by David Hemingson – gives more time for us to acquaint ourselves with the school’s resident cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). Having just lost her son in the Vietnam War, it isn’t surprising that Lamb is still grieving, and when we finally get to see how profoundly that loss has affected her, it is truly moving. It is also when the movie turns into a three-hander with Hunham, Tully and Lamb that it truly settles down into something with unexpected meaning.
Payne’s best movies have found humanity in unlikeable characters, and ‘The Holdovers’ is no different. Hunham is the most obvious of them – besides the aforementioned, his other affectionations include functional alcoholism and a bodily inability to break down trimethylamine that causes him to smell like rotting fish towards the end of each day – but you’ll find yourself sympathizing with the man whose life of promise as a teenager was cut short by those in positions of wealth and power. While Hunham has come to terms with the hand he has been dealt with in life, Tully is still struggling to do so, and a third-act trip to Boston reveals how his smart-mouthed nature is ultimately a façade to conceal his deeper insecurities.
There is no doubt Giamatti holds the movie together – in particular by his talent at finding pathos in the most cantankerous personalities we would otherwise dismiss if not detest – but the Golden Globe winning thespian is also a generous lead who gives both space and depth for his fellow supporting members to shine. Led by Giamatti, both Sessa and Randolph play every beat with just the right comic or tragic nuance, infusing every scene with the perfect balance of comedy and sadness. Thanks to the stellar cast, though their unlikely trio of characters may go on a familiar trajectory, the journey is never cheap, formulaic or contrived.
Even though it is best enjoyed in the spirit of the Christmas season (over which it is set), ‘The Holdovers’ is funny, heartfelt and moving enough to be enjoyed at any time of the year. Like we said, it is one of Payne’s best works that is charming, grounded and poignant without ever trying to be any. You’ll love how Payne reveals new layers and confounds expectations about each of his characters, some funny, some tragic but all engaging. It’ll hold your attention all right; it’ll probably also have your heart in the palm of its hand by the time the credits roll; and it’ll have you feeling okay to be held over by your foibles and failings in life, because it is through our imperfections that we learn to find good company.
(Funny, heartfelt and deeply moving, 'The Holdovers' reunites Alexander Payne with his 'Sideways' star Paul Giamatti for a beautifully bittersweet tale of life's foibles, failings and fullness)
Review by Gabriel Chong