‘The Holdovers’ Review
Alexander Payne goes back to school.
THE HOLDOVERS, AVAILABLE STREAMING ON DEMAND, feels like a confluence of earlier Alexander Payne movies: it’s part Election, part Sideways, but a little less cutting than both, and, both stylistically and tonally, very much a throwback to the knotty-but-ultimately-comforting coming-of-age stories from the 1970s and 1980s.
Like Election, this film takes place in a school and features a struggle of wills between a teacher and a student. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a professor of ancient history at tony prep school Barton Academy; he has been asked to stay on campus during the 1970–71 Christmas break to keep an eye on the boys unable to make the trip home for the holidays. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is one of the holdovers despite promises from his mother and new stepfather that he’d get to go to St. Kitt’s for the break. When the rest of their compatriots helicopter off to an older student’s mountain cabin for some skiing, Mr. Hunham and Angus are left to their own devices with school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is mourning the death of her son in Vietnam.
Unlike Election, however, our protagonists are all revealed to have hearts of gold and good reason for their rough edges. It is why, frankly, I prefer Election to this: the conflict between overachiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) and the earnestly annoyed Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is knotty and thorny in a way that The Holdovers simply isn’t. In the new movie, everything plays out more or less as you expect it to, at least in the sense that Angus is quietly hurting because of family issues, causing him to lash out, while Mr. Hunham’s gruff exterior hides a lonely decency just waiting for an excuse to come out.
And yet, the predictability gets a pass at least in part because it is a genuine delight to watch Giamatti, Sessa, and Randolph go to work. There’s something elastic to Giamatti’s performance as Mr. Hunham, particularly in his face: he never lacks a wide-eyed stare or a clenched jaw; it’s a masterpiece of miserly annoyance, he’s the king of put-upon stiffs who want nothing more than to be let alone for a bit.
You can’t help but sympathize with his curmudgeonly outlook when confronted by Sessa’s childish exuberance. Any parent in the audience will likely nod along while watching Angus tear ass around the school in direct contravention of Mr. Hunham’s demands, only to wind up accidentally injuring himself in the most comic way possible. This is what adulthood is, all too often, like: a series of messes from the younger generation that need cleaning up.
Payne reteams with Giamatti for the first time since 2004’s Sideways and one hopes that Giamatti gets the Best Actor nomination he was so rudely denied at that year’s Oscars. It’s a modest crime he has merely one nomination (for 2006’s Cinderella Man); here’s hoping he can break through this year’s crowded field to grab another nod.
The Holdovers is self-consciously a throwback, down to the nondiegetic trappings. We get the Universal logo from five or six decades ago; the on-screen credits feel in font and deployment like something you’d see on a coming-of-age drama from the same era; the digital film is made to look artificially grainy; and when the soundtrack kicks in, there’s an added pop and crackle from an LP needle drop. Like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, this is a movie that wants to put you in a very specific frame of mind as you settle in to watch: the vibe is one of comforting nostalgia, a sensation of cinema past renewed for modern viewers. It’s the sort of movie you can watch with your parents and chuckle along at, a new Christmas staple for visiting family members looking for something a bit more serious than Elf or A Christmas Story.