Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Holdovers (2023) dir. Alexander Payne

Now playing @ Coolidge


Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti at the Frog Pond in THE HOLDOVERS

If Eileen represents the soul-crushing yin of the New England Christmas– the brutal cold, the exhaust-blackened snow, the gap-toothed townies bumming for cigs outside the packieThe Holdovers is the cozy yang. Though both films are set in mid-century Massachusetts, Alexander Payne’s new film (which opens this weekend on 35mm at the Coolidge before expanding) was actually shot in and around Boston, and seems to delight in finding spots virtually unchanged by time: the skating rink on the Frog Pond, the outdoor shelves of the Brattle Book Shop, the balcony of the main house of the Somerville Theatre. Seeing these spots blanketed in snow and transformed by the crisp winter air triggers something in my reptilian Masshole brain: for all its bleakness, there is something magical about this place around the holidays.

Likewise, though The Holdovers is often hilariously caustic, it’s clear that Payne holds a great deal of affection for his characters. Chief among them is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), an acerbic, walleyed professor of Greek history at tawny Barton Academy, dreaded by his students for his punishing grades (we first meet him called upon the carpet for flunking a senator’s son) and despised by his colleagues for his thorny demeanor. No one feels particularly bad when it falls upon Mr. Hunham to monitor the “holdover” students with no place to go over the 1970 Christmas break; it’s not like he has much of an off-campus life to begin with, and one senses he takes perverse joy in subjecting his charges to a “bonus” cycle of rigorous study.

Or rather, his charge. Through a sort of Christmas miracle, the holdover boys get a last-minute reprieve– all except Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a troubled young man whose parents remain unreachable. Though not a bad student, one senses that Angus is Mr. Hunham’s least favorite of the bunch, a pugnacious smartas nearly as abrasive as he is. Still, closed quarters tend to forge bonds, and the two eventually develop a mutual respect, forming something of an ad hoc nuclear family unit with lunchlady Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is nursing a deep-seated loneliness of her own. 

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in THE HOLDOVERS

In a Q&A with critic Ty Burr at the Somerville Theatre (in the very room where his characters watch Little Big Man!), Payne said that he didn’t want his film to look like a “period piece” so much as an actual lost film from the 1970s. This is apparent from the film’s opening moments: the MPA and studio cards are all vintage, and while the film was shot digitally, Payne and his team of visual experts added realistic film grain, shudder, and other celluloid artifacts (this bolsters my theory that Grindhouse has quietly asserted itself as one of the most influential American films of the 21st century). While I’m not sure I would ever mistake The Holdovers for an authentic ‘70s artifact (it’s tough for even the most talented actor to fully shake contemporary speech patterns), the fact remains that it looks gorgeous. The cinematography is rarely flashy, but consistently handsome, reflecting the oaken tones of both Barton Academy and Dirty Old Boston, and Payne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld nail the uncluttered compositions that make that decade’s films so appealing. 

Similarly– and undoubtedly more challengingly– Payne captures the tone and pacing of 1970s cinema. Like Licorice Pizza, The Holdovers owes a great deal to the films of Hal Ashby, but where that film aims for the freewheeling spirit of Shampoo, this one mines the tragicomic undertones of The Last Detail, as well as such similarly downbeat classics as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and My Bodyguard. The Holdovers is frequently very funny (as in a riotously sudden detour to the hospital), and just as often heartbreaking, but– and this is the crucial part– these two aspects never feel at odds, or as if they’ve been cynically grafted to comply with some sort of crowdpleaser algorithm. Instead, they clearly come from the same place. As in life, things can be sad and funny at the same time, or flip at a moment’s notice.

Paul Giamatti is one of those actors who is pretty much universally loved by audiences and respected by critics, yet still feels perpetually and indefinably “underrated”– an indictment more of a Hollywood system unequipped to utilize his talents than of anyone’s actual taste. In an ideal world, Giamatti would get to play a role like Mr. Hunham once or twice a year; in this one, his performance feels like nothing short of a gift. The role is tailor-made for the actor, and Giamatti clearly relishes the chance to bring this sardonic sadsack to life. Few actors working today are as deft at both verbal and physical comedy, while never selling short the dramatic heft of the film (Bob Odenkirk comes to mind, perhaps the only actor to compete with Giamatti’s comic mastery of the phrase “Son of a BITCH!”). You really shouldn’t need me to tell you that Paul Giamatti is great, but believe me when I say that this is one of his greatest roles.

Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa at Brattle Book Shop in THE HOLDOVERS

What is surprising, then, is that Giamatti is matched beat for beat by his young costar. Dominic Sessa is one of those miracles of casting seen more often in movies themselves than behind the scenes: a theater kid from Deerfield Academy discovered in a local casting call, here making one of the most auspicious big screen debuts in recent memory. With his nervy energy and perpetual sneer, it’s not difficult to see why Angus Tully is largely disdained by teachers and peers alike, but he also carries himself with such an easy charm and authentically kid-like balance of edginess and naivete that he’s nearly impossible to fully dislike. Even more impressively, Sessa navigates David Hemingson’s hyperliterate screenplay effortlessly, with none of the reading-my-lines thuddiness that so often comes when an inexperienced actor is tricked into thinking that Tarantinoism is as easy as it looks. It’s a shame that Sessa’s rise is timed to coincide with the SAG-AFTRA strike, because I would love to hear his perspective on the role and going toe-to-toe with Payne and Giamatti. No matter; I think it’s safe to say we’ve not seen the last of him.

If there is a downside to The Holdovers, it’s that it doesn’t always necessarily do justice to its third lead. Randolph is excellent at playing the straightwoman to her two costars’ privileged angst (some of her best lines consist of a simple “Hmm,” in response to Giamatti’s histrionics), and Mary’s emotional arc is by far the most heartbreaking of the three: her son, being of more limited means than his classmates, is Barton’s sole casualty of the Vietnam War. But where Angus and Hunham play crucial roles in each other’s actualization, Mary’s remains cordoned off, running as an oddly separate thread. Her emotional climax comes only when she’s separated herself from them entirely (though her line “I need a break from you two!” is one of the biggest laughs in the film), and occurs well before the denouement of the film itself. Mary, and Randolph’s performance, are integral to the film’s success, but one would wish to see her a little less othered by her white, male companions by the film’s end.

But perhaps this and other loose threads are just another byproduct of The Holdovers’ debt to its ‘70s forebears, whose rough edges were seen as proof that they were made by human artists rather than the square Hollywood establishment. Here, as there, we are willing to accept a certain amount of emotional soppiness and an occasional shaggy dog quality because it just feels right. And The Holdovers does feel right; its characters feel real, its emotional beats feel earned, and, yes, its faux film grain feels authentic. And in both the shimmering snow of its quaintly recognizable locations and the many scenes in which its characters scream profanities at each other, The Holdovers is as successful as any film at capturing the essence of Christmas in Massachusetts.

The Holdovers
dir. Alexander Payne
133 min.

Now playing on 35mm @ Coolidge Corner Theatre
Opens 11/10 @ Somerville Theatre

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