Christmas, 1970. In a remote boarding school in Massachusetts, curmudgeonly teacher Paul Hunnham (Paul Giamatti) is left to tend to the students that are holding over the holiday period. As some eventually leave on an impromptu skiing trip, Paul remains with the school's head chef, Mary (Da'vine Joy Randolph) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), an angry student whose mother (Gillian Vigman) has effectively abandoned him in the school while she enjoys a honeymoon in St. Kitts. Forced to live together, the trio begin to thaw their icy exteriors...
From the opening credits, right through to the deliberate and intuitive casting, and on to the subtle production details, 'The Holdovers' is unmistakably a movie that is out of its own time. It's not to say that it's a period movie, like some sort of Merchant-Ivory drama or the like. Nobody's cracking jokes about sideburns or the like. No, 'The Holdovers' is a movie that looks, sounds, and feels as though it was made in 1970, but went unreleased until now. Indeed, Alexander Payne is channelling the spirit and the style of the late, great Hal Ashby in 'The Holdovers' and in doing so, reminds us how rare a character-driven comedy really is these days.
Paul Giamatti gives one of the great performances of the year in this, playing the kind of mangy, ever put-upon, permanently scowled teacher you either had or heard about. It's a subtle thing in playing an embittered soul like his character, as revealing too much too soon lessens the impact, but also we have to really understand what kind of bastard he is in the first place. Yet, the economy of the script means one scene is all it takes. Paul Giamatti's dialogue is able to wither an entire classroom in minutes, as well as being raucously funny. From there, whether he's getting mildly drunk or puffing on a pipe, Giamatti weaves a character that is completely memorable and distinctive, while never allowing it to overshadow any of the other performances.
Newcomer Dominic Sessa shines through as the gifted but troubled student sent to torment Paul Giamatti's character. Again, it's not enough to simply engineer a few scenes where we see all of this play out. Rather, 'The Holdovers' allows the time for the character to fully develop with small moments and quiet beats where we can fill in the colours and the shades. Likewise, the relationship that develops between Sessa's character and Giamatti's runs a full course. It begins with an act of defiance that winds up in hospital, and culminates with a heartbreaking moment outside a principal's office.
Da'Vine Joy Randolph carries the emotional core of the movie, and really epitomises what 'The Holdovers' is really all about - the people who the rest of us have effectively left behind. As a widowed mother who just lost her son in Vietnam, it would have been the most obvious thing to simply just play it dour and give a scene or two to a tearful explosion. Instead, her performance is far more subtle and textured. The kind of unimaginable grief that her character has experienced doesn't manifest itself in the obvious ways, but it's present and relatable in a way that is so often neglected in modern movies.
Alexander Payne's work has always drifted between genres, sometimes it's a sci-fi comedy like 'Downsizing', other times it has a black comedy flavour to it like 'The Descendants'. Yet in 'The Holdovers', the drift towards a bygone time in comedy isn't just a mere gimmick. There's a scene where Paul Giamatti's character discusses how history provides an understanding for the present. It's not as glib as saying there's nothing new under the sun, but it gives some insight into both the movie's stylistic choices and the characters themselves. Yes, 'The Holdovers' is riffing on downbeat comedies of the '70s, but it's less a cover band playing it flat and straight. Instead, it speaks to a reverence and pays homage, neatly folding itself into the time and style.
In the end, 'The Holdovers' is a movie that is sparse with joy for its characters, but it's a true joy to behold. It's rich in details, but delicately arranged. The characters are rough and coarse, but there's a deep humanity to it all that makes it heartbreaking at times. It's downbeat, yes, but it's damn funny stuff at times. They really don't make them like this any more, and we're lesser for it.