Every once in a while, a movie comes along that is perfect to watch for that particular time. In 2021, that movie was Spider-Man: No Way Home, which brought everyone back to theaters after a too-long pandemic. Last year, audiences slowly discovered The Menu, a dark satire that strongly advocated for the elimination of the 1% to cure society’s ills. This year, it’s …Wonka, the Timothée Chalamet musical?!? I kid; the 2023 movie that should be watched right now is The Holdovers, a shaggy underdog story with just the right balance of sentiment and cynicism.
The Alexander Payne-directed movie, set during a holiday break at an empty New England prep school in 1970, opened in November and has been steadily finding an audience in movie theaters across America. It’s no surprise as The Holdovers‘ tale of three loners — Paul Hunham, a despised, too-verbose teacher; Angus Tully, a sullen teenage student abandoned by his family; and Mary Lamb, a school employee suffering the loss of a close family member — reluctantly bonding over the holidays has all the elements of a classic underdog story. It’s the ideal movie to watch right now for several reasons — it has excellent acting, writing, and cinematography — but what makes it particularly essential this holiday season is how it evokes an earlier time when movies like this were the norm rather than the exception.
Paul Hunham joins American Splendor‘s Harvey Pekar, Sideways‘ Jim Taylor, and Barney Panofsky in Barney’s Version as another excellent addition to Giamatti’s gallery of cinematic assholes. It’s been a while since Giamatti’s had a proper big-screen showcase for his talents, and that’s largely due to his recently concluded seven-season commitment to the Showtime series Billions. Now that the show is over, Giamatti seems freer to step again into the shoes of someone who is inherently unlikable and almost physically repulsive — and we’re all the richer for it.
Unlike other seemingly similar inspirational teachers like Robin Williams’ John Keating in Dead Poet’s Society or Kevin Kline’s William Hundert in The Emperor’s Club, Giamatti’s Paul is less inclined to inspire than he is to fail his students. He’s tough, often too tough, and it’s quickly evident that he’s shielded himself from everyone by barricading himself behind a wall of knowledge, cynicism, and alcohol. What’s great about Giamatti’s work in The Holdovers is that he lets Paul chip away at that barricade without sacrificing the qualities that make him so interesting in the first place. At the end of the movie, he’s still very much an asshole, but one who is maybe a little less cynical and a little less tipsy than before.
You may not know the name Da’Vine Joy Randolph, but you soon will after you watch The Holdovers. She’s unforgettable as Mary, the school’s head cook, who just recently lost her son in Vietnam. Mary could’ve easily been a sassy Black woman stereotype, a character designed only to uplift the other white characters, because that’s just what Hollywood’s done in the past. Equally worse, her personal tragedy could’ve been “solved” via an unlikely romance that assures the audience that love conquers all, even the death of a child.
The movie allows Randolph the time and space to explore Mary’s grief, and doesn’t offer any false solutions or contrived uplift. She’s not fully defined by her son’s death –there’s a sweet scene where Mary introduces Paul to The Newlywed Game — but she doesn’t overcome it either. Mary has to live with it, and the beauty of Randolph’s performance is that it constantly surprises you. Mary doesn’t fit into any conventional box; she’s funny, she’s messy, and she hurts — and her life exists with and without Paul and Angus. It’s a supporting performance that, ultimately, supports itself rather than anyone else, and Randolph deserves all the awards she’s going to get for her work in The Holdovers.
What’s especially great about The Holdovers is how well it evokes the time and place it’s set in. I wasn’t alive in 1970, and I’ve never attended a prep school in New England, but I can imagine if I had, it would look, sound, and feel exactly like the movie’s primary location, Barton Academy. It’s here where the audience spends the most time with the characters, and it’s here where the heart of the movie, and the central conflict that drives the narrative, takes place.
Even more impressive, The Holdovers feels like it was actually made in 1970. From the lived-in sets to the warm, earth-toned cinematography to the natural, unaffected performances, The Holdovers could live side by side with other movies from that era like I Never Sang For My Father, Getting Straight, or The Paper Chase. I don’t know how he does it, but director Alexander Payne manages to mimic the naturalistic rhythms of those movies in The Holdovers without ever striking a false note. Nothing is posed in the movie; everything and everyone looks and sounds authentic to that time period. It may not sound like much, but the effect is completely immersive, and helps sell the movie’s central message of the importance of integrity; what it’s worth, and what price each character must pay to keep it.
It’s easy to get lost in all the dramatic elements The Holdovers serves up, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly point out that it’s also incredibly funny, too. From the profane banter between the holdover students at the beginning of the movie to Paul and Angus’ road trip to Boston, The Holdovers has plenty of well-earned laughs in its arsenal.
Giamatti in particular shines as an expert deliverer of the withering, comical side-eye; fools don’t suffer gladly when he sets his sights on them. A great example of the movie’s comedy is in the clip above when Paul, Mary, and Angus try to order cherries jubilee at a fancy restaurant. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the movie’s appeal; it’s comical, but also endearing and just a bit melancholy.
It’s a common refrain for adult moviegoers, or simply anyone who wants to watch a good movie without explosions or excessive CG, to lament that Hollywood doesn’t make great movies like it used to. That’s not exactly true, but the underlying message is still relevant: mid-budgeted movies aimed squarely at adults aren’t released in theaters as often as they were in the past.
Don’t get me wrong: The Holdovers would be just as special had it been released in 1973 or 2003. But this is 2023, our multiplexes are dominated by trolls, giant lizards, and blue beetles, and The Holdovers is a rarity — a movie about “regular people” that doesn’t hide their complexities, nor does it offer a clear resolution for anyone. Cinematic yet never showy, intelligent but not pretentious, The Holdovers is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word, and you’d do yourself a favor by watching it this holiday season.
The Holdovers is now playing in theaters nationwide. It’s also available to rent or purchase at various digital vendors like Amazon Prime Video.
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