Directed By Alexander Payne
Starring – Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa
The Plot – With no family and nowhere to go over Christmas holiday in 1970, professor Paul Hunham (Giamatti) remains at school to supervise students unable to journey home. After a few days, only one student holdover remains , a trouble-making 15-year-old named Angus (Sessa), a good student whose bad behavior always threatens to get him expelled. Joining Paul and Angus is head cook Mary (Randolph), an African American woman who caters to sons of privilege and whose own son was recently lost in Vietnam. These three very different shipwrecked people form an unlikely Christmas family sharing comic misadventures during two very snowy weeks in New England.
Rated R for adult language, some drug use and brief sexual material
Nobody juggles tones quite as proficiently as Payne, who in his ninth feature length film seamlessly conjures the ties that bind humanity, with regards to the kind of grief and depression that everyone faces. If that sounds like a sagging engagement, the reality is quite the contrary, as Payne imbeds this once more with the kind of caustically dry humor that he’s been known for, which materializes in ways the audience rarely ever expects, but also with the same element of underlining poignancy that really brings out the heart of his characters, which in the confines of Paul is buried under a layer of the thickest ice that a cold heart can conjure. Despite each feeling like polar opposites of the tonal spectrum, they are attained wonderfully in a barrage of shifts throughout the engagement, without one undermining or compromising the influence of the other. This pays off wonderfully for the story and its trio of leading characters, as not only do they start as one thing before evolving every thirty minutes or so, but they also help to articulate the awkwardness of the situation of being stranded in an unwelcoming situation, which forces them to grow and learn about one another. The results are essentially quite fascinating, especially in Payne’s simplistic structure as a screenwriter, but also the unforeseen surprises in development between them that vividly convey meaning into the people we see before us. The film is also decorated with a transformative essence of production in both the vintage presentation and period piece setting, which both equally help to cement a particular place in time with the experience. The former elicits everything from weathered cinematography, to cigarette burns with the film, to even throwback quality of credits, with the old Miramax logo and an actual credits-spanning introduction to its appeal, and the latter bringing depth and believability to the film’s 1970 New England setting, in everything from its set design and wardrobe, which offer plenty to gander over with impressive detail, but especially the film’s melancholic ensemble of B-side favorites, which when held in tow with another somberly sentimental score from the great Mark Orton commands a nostalgic warmth that every age group can feel, regardless of their lack of experience with the depicted time frame. While we know that this is a film set in the 70’s that was made in 2023, these naturally believable elements assembled under one roof garner an unshakeable consistency that makes it feel like it could easily fool someone into thinking that it’s a film made and set in the 70’s, but it all serves as a testament to Payne’s capabilities as a visual storyteller, which he articulates with the kind of immersive consciousness that feels even more impressive than the colorless decision that he crafted in 2013’s “Nebraska”. Finally, I would be doing a grave disservice if I didn’t mention the performances, especially since the decorated trio of Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph each give their heart to exploration of such fascinating characters and personalities. What Sessa lacks in screen experience, he makes up for in screen presence, with an exaggerated sense of emotionality that effortlessly engages the spontaneity of teenage trepidation, and Randolph’s tenderness as a victim of love and loss lends her the best work of her early career to date, with a surprisingly palpable level of chemistry that she shares with Giamatti. Speaking of Paul, we sometimes forget that he is one of the very best actors on the planet, but if re-teaming with Payne brings that out in him, then we’re happy to oblige, especially with his impeccably perfect comedic timing and dramatic gravitas that unwraps something sincere behind every bite, all with Paul’s typical heartfelt empathy that leads to the endearing value to an otherwise cantankorous curmudgeon.
The 128 minute run time is a lot of allowance to this simplistic structure, but we really don’t feel that length until the film’s third act, where the rerouting in a trip between the characters outside of the campus gives a bit more levity to their stranded isolation factor, which so much of the development relies on. While the third act does feature some vital aspects that solidify the bond between these three characters, it’s a bit long-winded for my personal tastes, and if the film trimmed fifteen minutes from its finished product, then I think it could’ve elicited a tighter finished product that evaded some of those temporary drawn out moments, in turn making the most of its mileage. Beyond this, my only other issue with the film pertained to one major first act decision with the set-up of the film’s plot that feels a bit disappointing when you consider the time and attention paid to it. I’m talking about four other students that are stranded with Angus at the school, but quickly enough disappear with a plot device that rendered each of them unnecessary. Considering I enjoyed some of the personalities and dynamics between these temporarily rendered supporting characters, I wish the film had kept them around all together, or at least long enough to legitimize their presence, as failing to do so made me wonder why they were such an integral role to the film’s set-up in the first place.
“The Holdovers” is top tier Alexander Payne, with a relieving return to form that features three of the most fascinating character studies of his entire filmmography. With stacked performances, transformative production values and another emotionally gripping music score from Mark Orton, the film always has its heart in the right place, producing another Christmas-influenced dramedy that more than earns its place among your all-time favorite holiday classics.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+