Availability: Still showing in some theaters nationally; streaming widely on Peacock, Amazon Prime, Google Play and other sites; see JustWatch here for full availability.
In the trailer, a grumpy old teacher is seen learning how to joyfully play with a heretofore sullen teen, a weary but serviceable trope for a movie intended for Holiday audiences (it opened in theaters November 10). Based on that trope and the emotional catharsis it promises, “The Holdovers” would seem destined to take its place in the winter holiday queue of family favorites, joining “Home Alone” (1990), “Love Actually” (2003), the 1947 version of “Miracle on 34th Street,” and other tear-inducing melodramas. “The Holdovers” may be in that queue, even though it’s a more subtle film than the trailer would suggest.
Teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) seems to delight in torturing the students who despise him; he's a pedant through and through.
The setting begs for Hunham, Mary, and Tully to form a surrogate family.
Paul Giamatti constrains his classic impishness in his portrayal of Paul Hunham (his name an echo of “human”?), an embittered, withdrawn, socially inept, despised teacher of ancient civilizations, more at home in Carthage than in Barton Academy (filmed at Groton School in Massachusetts), the prep school where he was a student and is now—1971—a long-time, provisional instructor. Equally alone is the school’s head cook, Mary Lamb, a single mother whose only child was that year killed in Vietnam, and Angus Tully. Tully is one of 5 students, ranging in age from naïve children to jaded late teens, left to founder during the holiday break because, for various reasons, they can’t go home. Hunham is in charge. The setting begs for the 3 of them—Hunham, Mary, and Tully—stuck with each other when 4 of the students find a way out of Barton (the deus ex machina comes in the form of a parent’s helicopter, spiriting them away to a ski resort), to bond, to form a surrogate family, to develop a mutually therapeutic relationship. It’s not so simple.
Unlike the charismatic Robin Williams’ teacher of 1989’s “Dead Poets Society,” Hunham is a hopeless pedant from start to finish, hardly an inspiration or role model.
Newcomer Dominic Sessa infuses student Angus Tully with a range of conflicting feelings and looks.
Mary—played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph with cynical awareness, sassiness, and race and class consciousness—is not assuaged in her bereavement by her newfound companions. Tully—infused by newcomer Dominic Sessa with a range of conflicting feelings and looks—is not interested in bringing his teacher into the modern world. Director Alexander Payne (“Sideways” 2004, “Downsizing” 2017) and writer David Hemingson use filmgoers’ expectations of schmalzy rapprochement to introduce some unexpected turns of character and plot. Unlike the charismatic Robin Williams’ teacher of 1989’s “Dead Poets Society,” Hunham is a hopeless pedant from start to finish, hardly an inspiration or role model. There’s no applause finale to confirm and amplify one’s feelings. Despite the temptations of a coupling here and there, no couples will be made. A late scene over Cherries Jubilee, shot from distance, fails to provide the emotional capstone moment that’s been a part of such films since “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).
A spoiled, entitled brat might have a backstory that’s worth knowing and understanding.
Head cook Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) reaches out her hand,
but will alienated student Tully (Dominic Sessa) take it?
Instead, there’s a slow drip of recognition among the main characters of the reasons for the outward behavior of the others, their barriers to human interaction. One could be put off by efforts to produce sympathy for elite white boys. But a spoiled, entitled brat might have a backstory that’s worth knowing and understanding, even, perhaps especially, if it includes Christmas dinner delivery from Delmonico’s. One might learn from Mary’s rap on “The Newlyweds” TV series. And that classroom martinet might be that way because he too has been damaged. Thankfully, Payne and Hemingson know not to bring the trio together with tears and hugs, but they also are savvy enough to allow their characters to engage in moments of sharing—of personal histories and secrets (“entre nous”)—allowing cracks in that anti-social armor to open, just a little. Even then, there are no conversions—just vague possibilities, touched with uncertainty. And that’s good.
Lying to protect oneself, or to protect the other, is emblematic of knowing another person.
A signal change in the relationship between teacher and student comes in an ER when the teen demonstrates the efficacy of lying, even though, as Hunham would have it, “Barton men never lie.” Lying to protect oneself, or to protect the other, is emblematic of knowing another person, of caring about that person enough to do what Hunham hasn’t been able to imagine: violating one’s hard and fast principles.
DIY Cherries Jubilee holds out the promise of bonding,
until it doesn't. Above from left: teacher, cook, and student, not a family.
Paul Hunham (Giamatti), Mary Lamb
(Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa).
Late in the film, teacher and student head to Boston, an interlude that’s too long and has too many separate scenes (ice skating, museum visit, used book browsing, tenpin bowling—and no Great Lebowski), lacking the intensity, purpose, and wit of a buddy road trip. It’s as if, in the process of trying to get beyond the hackneyed story line, to provide that slow drip instead of over-the-top, unrealistic character transformations, director and writer can’t find a way to sustain our interest.
Some unpredictability and excellent acting make this film rise above the ordinary. It’s already received more than its share of award nominations and wins, so far 179 and 91, respectively. Despite the inexplicable failure of that road trip to capture and enhance the film’s message, and despite (or because of) its subtleties, “The Holdovers” could find a place in the Holiday rotation.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston
Country: United States
Runtime: 133 minutes
Other Awards: 91 wins and 179 other nominations