Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 8th, 2023
The Holdovers (Alexander Payne, 2023) 2 out of 4 stars.
Director Alexander Payne returns to the silver screen six years after his last film, the 2017 Downsizing, failed to garner much critical or audience support. This time, working off a script by David Hemingson (ABC’s Whiskey Cavalier series), he reunites with Paul Giamatti, star of his 2004 Sideways. The result mixes charm and smarm in equal measure, never quite resolving into a meaningful exercise, despite the strenuous efforts of all involved.
The year is 1970. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, longtime history teacher at the Barton School, a New England boarding school for boys. He’s the quintessential hard-ass, despised by his students, which is a point of pride for him. Unfortunately, he has been assigned to stay behind for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Somebody has to watch the kids who have nowhere to go, and it’s his turn.
Well, sort of. He is also stuck with the assignment because no one likes him among the staff, either, and his uncompromising teaching methods did not allow him to give a passing grade to the son of a rich donor. It’s not as if he has any place to go for vacation, anyway. As a (somewhat) functioning alcoholic, he just needs a place to drink away his sorrows.
And so he finds himself watching a group of surly teenagers whose parents are, for whatever reason (distance, other plans, punishment), unable or unwilling to host them during the break. Among them is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, making his debut), a smart, cocky kid who had plans to go to the Caribbean but whose mom, at the last minute, decided to take a delayed honeymoon with her new husband. The trajectory of the narrative will focus on Paul and Angus’ initial hostility and later rapprochement.
Also staying over is the school’s Black head cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name), a single mother who just recently lost her only child, an alum of the school, in Vietnam. Her tragic story adds immediate gravitas to the affair, grounding the initially more trivial problems of spoiled rich boys in real-world trauma. Still, sometimes it feels as if her presence is engineered solely for that purpose, as a mere counterweight to the primary plot.
Through a variety of shenanigans both comic and serious, Paul and Angus eventually end up on some adventures and misadventures, via which we learn more about their respective backgrounds. This deepens their bond and adds needed three-dimensionality to their characters. There too often remains, however, an ironic detachment from much of the proceedings that keeps us from full engagement.
Visually, Payne dives head-on into the aesthetics of the movie, embracing the look and feel of 1970s cinema (even while shooting digitally). It’s an approach that has appeal, but to what end? Much like the various story details themselves, it’s a surface treatment only. Nevertheless, the actors are the real reason to watch The Holdovers, as they give of their all, never holding back. It’s too bad the script and direction aren’t quite up to their level.