The Holdovers (2023, dir. Alexander Payne)

by | Jan 16, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 133 mins

UK Distributor: Universal Pictures

UK Release Date: 19 January 2024

WHO’S IN THE HOLDOVERS?

Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan, Michael Provost, Andrew Garman, Naheem Garcia, Stephen Thorne, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Darby Lily Lee-Stack

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Alexander Payne (director), David Hemingson (writer, producer), Bill Block and Mark Johnson (producers), Mark Orton (composer), Eigil Bryld (cinematographer), Kevin Tent (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

During a 1970s winter, a disliked schoolteacher (Giamatti) looks after students with nowhere to go…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON THE HOLDOVERS?

[This is a slightly re-edited version of our review for The Holdovers from its showing at the BFI London Film Festival]

The last time that director Alexander Payne made a movie, it did not go down very well with viewers. Downsizing, the 2017 misfire that wasted its ambitious satirical concept on a misguided and slightly racist hero’s journey, fared poorly with critics as its 47% Rotten Tomatoes rating can attest, and did even worse with general audiences who scored it a measly 25% on the same website. That, on top of its box office disappointment – coming in at $55 million worldwide on a budget somewhere between $60-75 million – must have been particularly brutal for Payne, who had become known for plenty of good movies like Sideways, The Descendants, About Schmidt, Nebraska and Election, and had now become a bit of a laughingstock for flying too close to the sun.

Thankfully, the filmmaker has managed to get himself back on track six years later with The Holdovers, a delightful warm hug of a film that echoes much of Payne’s earlier work but also takes a number of steps forward that are considerably more ambitious than Downsizing ever managed to be.

The film is set during the winter of 1970, at the prestigious Barton Academy in New England where young boys from wealthy backgrounds are put through a rigorous curriculum designed to transform them into noble gentlemen. As Christmas approaches, however, a handful of students – including, at the last minute, unruly teenager Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) – are forced to stay behind for the holidays when their families are unable to welcome them home.

To their horror, the teacher that has been assigned to watch over them is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a widely unpopular classics professor who himself is being punished for failing the son of a school benefactor. Soon, though, the only ones remaining at the school are Hunham, Angus, and kitchen manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who is mourning the death of her son, a Barton alumni who was killed in Vietnam; all three of these lonely souls end up spending Christmas break together, forming an unlikely bond that helps sees them through their various struggles and griefs until the school starts again in the New Year.

Directing from a script by David Hemingson, which itself is filled with plenty of wit and a tremendous amount of humanity, Payne’s most notable aesthetical choice is to give his film the look and feel of a lost classic from the 1970s. With a slightly grainy 35mm film filter, era-appropriate studio logos, and even an old rating card from the MPAA all coming within seconds of the film starting, The Holdovers does not waste time in establishing its old-school vibes, while also doing everything within its power to not come across as overly nostalgic.

Instead, Payne uses the retro style to gently ease the audience into this dreary world, where snow blankets just about everything as far as the eye can see, and the constantly overcast sky creates a gloomy atmosphere that the few remaining Christmas decorations (even the tree is rehomed after it has served its usefulness during term-time) are able to liven up. It’s a mercilessly old-fashioned atmosphere enlivened by an appropriately old-fashioned approach, and it is used to pleasing effect that should capture the attention of any fans of that classic period of cinema.

Crucially, however, The Holdovers is not defined by its handsome exterior, and much more so by the beating heart inside of it. Payne’s direction and Hemingson’s script both equally adore these central characters, giving them plenty of opportunities to be entertaining with their overt and occasionally obnoxious personalities, but also enough moments to feel like well-rounded and believable people in their own right.

Take Paul Giamatti’s curmudgeon teacher Hunham, for example: with his schlubby appearance, Scrooge-like disdain for his entitled students and fellow teachers, and a wonky eye that gives him the nickname “Mr. Walleye” among the faculty, he could so easily have been a mere caricature that the director and writer would routinely make the butt of every joke, or have him be such a stick-in-the-mud that he wouldn’t be able to function properly within society. Not so much in the actual film, for while he is certainly uptight and a stickler for the rules, he is still made incredibly likeable because the writing gives him moments of genuine empathy where he sticks up for people after they are cruelly looked down upon and has some sweet moments as he tries to give his fellow outcasts a meaningful Christmas experience, all of which are delivered by Giamatti in one of the character actor’s very best performances where he gets to be both funny and endearing in one fell swoop.

The same can be applied to the other main characters, including troubled young Angus as played by Dominic Sessa in a breakout role, and the grieving Mary whom Da’Vine Joy Randolph excels at playing in an understated performance that is one of the film’s most invaluable assets. Again, Payne and Hemingson give so much time and attention to these people – perhaps a bit too much time, for the film does start to run out of steam as it gets nearer its 133-minute limit – that you really do identify with their struggles and, despite some of their more rambunctious traits, are perfectly pleasant to be around.

They give the film a warm feeling that makes the familiar structure feel fresh once more, which is a quiet accomplishment for someone like Payne, who even before Downsizing was starting to settle into somewhat safe territory, but with The Holdovers seems to have recaptured that ambitious spark which lit his earlier films. He just needed a script that could compliment his joyful ambition, and in David Hemingson he’s found someone who shares his unquestionable empathy and appetite for funny yet heartwarming stories of flawed people finding a connection with one another.

Also, you can count on The Holdovers becoming a new go-to Christmas classic, because even without all its other qualities, it’s one hell of an endearing festive flick.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Holdovers is a wonderful return to form for director Alexander Payne, who along with writer David Hemingson crafts a meaningful story with excellently well-rounded characters, which are complimented by a pleasing retro 70s-era style and some excellent, awards-worthy performances by the likes of Paul Giamatti and Da’Vine Joy Randolph.

Four of of five stars

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