Sideways director Alexander Payne joins forces with chameleon-like actor Paul Giamatti once more for The Holdovers, a sort of George Roy Hill meets 1991 Ed Harris movie Dutch by way of the Farrelly Brothers’ 1999 opus Outside Providence type of thing. And though Payne’s newest—with a script from TV writer/producer David Hemingson—might bear familiar hallmarks, its brisk performances and crackling dialogue help it to rise above its forebears. This one is just plain fun.
In 1970 rural Massachusetts, young Angus Tully (a smart and cutting Dominic Sessa in his film debut) is left to languish on-campus during the Christmas break while the vast majority of his private school classmates jet off to better locales. This leaves Tully to haunt the school grounds alongside the cafeteria manager (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Lost City) and his hard-ass ancient civilizations teacher Mr. Hunham (Giamatti). The odd couple-y setup isn’t wildly original, but the constant payoffs feel fresh, at least insofar as what they represent: The Holdovers centers on disappointments, really, and universal ones at that—the trip canceled last minute; the things we want wrenched from our grip; death; competition; adolescence and on and on. But it’s also about growth, or maybe perspective, and something about how we can’t know what someone else has gone through. The Holdovers is also quite funny.
Giamatti is, as always, a joy to watch. His Mr. Hunham presents a delightful amalgamation and sendup of an almost archetypical exhausted educator who slowly relinquishes his ideas of respect and rigidity. Newcomer Sessa matches him pound for pound, too, particularly in scenes crammed with lightning-fast repartee. Neither, however, holds a candle to Randolph’s understated yet powerful performance. She is the linchpin, and the woman does more with a glance than some actors can do with pages of dialogue. Randolph’s chemistry with the ostensibly well-off Tully and Mr. Hunham underscores her character’s impossible position as someone serving entitled, educated so-called men at an East Coast snob factory. Someone hand this woman an Oscar, jeeze.
The Holdovers does veer notably close into Wes Anderson territory in its cutesy/soft-vocal acoustic jam moments, but Hemingson’s writing eschews the sameness of Anderson’s. When paired with Payne’s incisive directing, sparks fly. Someplace within there’s a moral about survival, or at least making room for whatever’s on the other side of the present situation—that with which, we think, we couldn’t possibly live without. What’s that old saying about how sometimes we have to tear something down to make room for another better thing?
+Writing; performances; payoff
-Sometimes too cute; sometimes self-indulgent
Directed by Payne
With Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph
Violet Crown, R, 133 min.