One of 2023’s very best films is also a Christmas movie: The Holdovers (now streaming on Peacock), a deeply poignant, deeply funny comedy-drama from director Alexander Payne and longtime TV writer David Hemingson, penning his first screenplay. And that screenplay seems fashioned explicitly for Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne 19 years after Sideways to play a verbose and irascible prep-school teacher with misaligned eyes and sweaty palms and who smells funny – a role Giamatti was born to play, and I hope he doesn’t take that as an insult. He doesn’t wholly devour the screen, though, as Da’Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa stand side-by-side with their co-star, as they likely will in photos of Oscar nominees. This is a great movie, capturing the melancholy joys of the holiday season impeccably.
THE HOLDOVERS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Christmas, 1970. Well, not quite – it’s a few days before Dec. 25, and the prep-school boys at Barton Academy are all but checked out. Their parents will soon whisk them away for expensive holiday vacations or family gatherings with ample gifts and feasts. In a crummy little campus apartment lives Paul Hunham (Giamatti), and sweatervested and puffing on a pipe, corrects history exams. Apropos for a guy surrounded by whiskey bottles and tubes of Preparation H squeezed to the point of expenditure, he’s a real soreass. “Lazy, vulgar, rancid little philistines” is how he views his students, and he’s not entirely wrong – they’re boys of privilege, entitled little pricks with Easy Street paved smooth and flat in front of them. Hunham failed one of those boys recently, and it didn’t go over well. The kid was a senator’s son, and as headmaster Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman) reminds Hunham, this school needs donations from families like that. But Hunham is a principled man; if the kid is an idiot, he gets the grades of an idiot. And now Hunham’s paying for it, being forced to keep an eye on the “holdovers,” the students who have nowhere to go during the holiday break. Woodrup’s only instruction for Hunham? “Pretend to be a human being. Please. It’s Christmas.”
Hunham’s best student in Ancient Civ is Angus Tully (Sessa). Hunham whistles Wagner as he hands out grades on the final, and Tully gets a B+ among heaps of Ds and Fs. That’s a bit surprising, because Tully is a serial troublemaker, a liar and thief who’s one expulsion away from military school. He’s all fired up for an exotic vacay with his mom and stepdad, but they break it to him at the last minute that he’ll be staying at Barton while they take a honeymoon. Devastated. He’s devastated. He joins his nemesis Kountze (Brady Hepner) among the holdovers who’ll suffer under Hunham’s supervision for the next two weeks. Misery. They’re all in misery. Same goes for Mary (Randolph), the cafeteria supervisor who’ll be cooking for them. During the last chapel before break, the pastor acknowledges Mary’s loss – her son, a Barton grad-turned-soldier, killed in Vietnam. She’s crushed. And like Hunham, for her a lot of whiskey goes a little way.
Soon, one of the holdover’s CEO fathers quite literally helicopters in and swoops everyone away for a ski trip except Tully, Hunham and Mary. Nobody wants to be here. Nobody. Nor with each other, although Hunham and Mary have another thing in common, agreeing that all the boys at Barton are “assholes.” Of course, they’ll soon learn that Tully is only an asshole on the surface, as the pain of being away from family on Christmas brings out his sensitive side. It happens to Hunham too, as he begins to acknowledge that his pompous and condescending demeanor only exacerbates the repulsive elements of his poor corpus – need I mention the eyes or the palms or the odor again? And Mary, well, her grief fills every room she walks into. You won’t be at all surprised to realize that these people need each other because they have no one else this Christmas, and the profound bittersweetness of that realization is what makes this movie so wonderful.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Others have referenced the work of Hal Ashby in discussions of The Holdovers, and it absolutely recalls his standout films Harold and Maude and The Last Detail; I also see the influence of Five Easy Pieces here. So here’s a persuasive argument that Payne’s best films – this, Nebraska, Election, Sideways – draw from 1970s character-driven dramedies.
Performance Worth Watching: Sure, Giamatti is in superlative form, and Sessa – in his first-ever acting gig – is a minor revelation. But where Giamatti goes big, the down-to-the-marrow ache Randolph finds in Mary is the film’s emotionally grounding force. Without her, The Holdovers would be merely OK instead of hands-down great.
Memorable Dialogue: You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Giamatti deliver some of this dialogue, e.g., “That boy is too dumb to pour piss out of a boot. A genuine troglodyte!”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: The Holdovers offers some of the biggest laughs of any movie this year, and the biggest heart. Payne is great at this stuff – it’s right there in his name, itself a slyly comical misspelling – stirring the happy into the sad and seasoning it with extraordinary performances. He nods to the ’70s with slow dissolves, grainy visual textures and natural lighting, and in the drive to imbue the characters with endearing personality foibles and pure, noble intentions. Maybe it’s a cliche that Hunham, Tully and Mary radiate warmth from beneath their prickly exteriors, but dammit, their stories and emotions never fail to feel true. Payne, rejuvenating his career after his 2017 dud Downsizing, and Hemingson root tragedy and comedy in character; nothing feels artificial or forced; we laugh a lot and cry a little and never feel manipulated. It’s the rare movie with exquisite specificity in its characters and broad audience appeal. To dislike it is to bah-humbug in the face of someone’s all-too-real pain and joy.
Where Randolph makes the most of every moment of her screen time with an profound, subtle portrayal of grief – highlight: a wordless, emotionally devastating scene between her and her sister – Giamatti hooks us and reels us in immediately with his distinctive ability for surly characterizations and waggish line readings. I can picture no one else in this role. Nobody. This is Giamatti in his purest form, playing a man who masks his crushing insecurity with bookish pretentiousness, a man whose attempt to throw a football is a simple single-shot scene that brings down the house. His delivery of dialogue also brings down the house on more than one occasion. Hell, one single deflated Giamatti expression – you’ll know the one when you see it – brings down the house, and should be framed and put in the Louvre.
Of course, the sorry, fishlike curmudgeon Hunham projects is just the moat around his castle, and his students sense the pathetic man beneath the cantankerousness and haughty airs – they call him a “poor, walleyed bastard.” Hunham reserves his compassion for those who deserve it, like Mary, and, eventually, Tully, who has to assert himself as a person of substance in order to earn his teacher’s begrudging respect.
While Payne masterfully establishes the film’s salty-sweet tone, Hemingson’s writing cultivates all kinds of stuff in the subtext: The miserable specter of the Vietnam War and the racial dynamic between working-class Mary and the heavily moneyed Barton attendees comes into crisp focus when she reveals how her son graduated from the school, couldn’t afford college and was drafted to be frontline fodder for a grossly unpopular war. Tully could face that very same path if he doesn’t stop taunting fate and being, to use one of Hunham’s descriptives, a reprobate. What kind of people do places like Barton enable and empower? Shitty people. Hunham’s become all too aware of this, and yet is so stuck in his musty rut, he contributes to the problem despite his teensy little rebellions against the ugliness of privilege. Nothing about his and Mary’s and Tully’s stories surprises us, yet we’re powerless to protest, because the movie is just like its characters, and us: Imperfect, and always, always worthy of love.
Our Call: I’ve seen The Holdovers three times already. It’s a lovely film, and likely a soon-to-be Christmas classic. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.