The Holdovers

The Holdovers
The Holdovers
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Looking down on his characters in films such as “Election,” “Citizen Ruth,” and “Nebraska” is one of the accusations that has been leveled against Alexander Payne. Though I have never found these allegations completely unjustified, considering the fact that some of these movies are dominated by goofy personalities and there is only a fine line between entertaining people and mocking them. The reason why I am saying this is that his latest film entitled “The Holdovers” lacks any semblance of it in his career. In contrast, he adores them. This can be felt in every frame, every line delivery and even every plot choice he makes. With growing cynicism today I’m sure many people will adore them too.

After the fiasco with “Downsizing,” Payne revives his partnership with star from arguably his most recognized movie, “Sideways.” That Paul Giamatti in years starred as Paul Hunham- a ruthless teacher at Barton Academy during early 70’s appears to be quite unexpected (Payne opened with a joke about how he has been making nothing but ‘70s comedies so far). This character was generally unpopular among both students and staff although Christmas cookies were made for him by one of the colleagues named Lydia (Carrie Preston) who referred to him as an old grumpy man. Having had enough time to fail students over Christmas break, Hunham would then scream at students for doing anything wrong other than what he says. He does not have much control over his own life hence uses it aggressively thus limiting significantly those who appreciate him on personal level.

Every holiday break there are always some kids who remain behind without going home which means lonely folks like Paul must watch over them assigning schoolwork since it is all they know how to do really. Over the course of these holidays holds overs become almost just Paul, Angus (Dominic Sessa whose role marked a turning point), a pupil and the head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). They are at very different stages in their lives but these three will have an impact on one another that is both heartwarming and true. When a stranger comes into our lives and changes its course to something we never would have thought of, I’m thinking about David Hemingson’s screenplay; great little turns but long after you think you’re done adjusting yourself. There are some blatant clichés in here although Payne and his team find a way for this wisdom to be natural since they do not build their dramedy around formulaic twists. Then again, this one is all about how unpredictable life can be.

Should Hunham become the unwilling parent figure of this three, Mary is an inconsolable mother who had just lost a son in the Vietnam War. Randolph says less than he should and soars with grief. She just seems to struggle more to move around in it. It would be hard to imagine losing a child but I think that would cause many days to turn into quicksand. Angus, on the other hand, is a 15-year-old kid with razor-sharp intelligence but he’s also been imbued with some aggression that comes from an uncertain future. His folks don’t want him home for Christmas time. He’s not positive where else to go after Barton. It might even be Vietnam. This implies he seeks advice from Hunham but these enemies at first start getting along well enough with each other. Huhman learns about life by examining how he got here through his friend who is showing him the way.

However, all of this still doesn’t capture how consistently funny “The Holdovers” is from its beginning till its end. Payne exploits Giamatti’s crankiness quite well in the early scenes and makes them even funnier when those walls come crumbling down later on. Randolph doesn’t say much; however when given a line that hits home or has impact, he knows exactly what to do. In this case though, Sessa who initially starts as one dimensional develops as the film moves forward following her character’s growth path alongside her acting skill which makes you feel like you are watching an upcoming star perform rather than real acting itself. He has all of both a leading man and eccentric character actor characteristics at once only thing missing is the mustachioed tobacco magnate played by Burt Reynolds in every movie set in Atlanta between “Deliverance” and “Smoky and the Bandit.” Sessa would have been huge then if we went back to those times; she will blow up now.

Is it Hollywood’s countless “makeshift families that learn something” stories? Then why does “The Holdovers” feel so different? It might be because it’s been a long time since one of those stories felt this true. Payne and co understand how these life lessons turn out, but they lace them with truths that could never go out of style. In everybody’s life, there is that one unexpected friendship or even mentorship from somebody who changed their lives forever. And everyone has that young person who has shocked them out of their stasis, either through revealing what they have become or failed to be. “The Holdovers” is a consistently smart, funny movie about people who are easy to root for and like the ones we know. Their greatest achievement isn’t in how much you see yourself in Paul, Angus or Mary, but in how you will recognize all three.

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