‘The Holdovers’: Paul Giamatti Brings Biting Wit and Heart to One of Alexander Payne’s Best Films 

The best films by Alexander Payne comprehend how life doesn’t work out like a movie. Dreams are not always fulfilled exactly how we wanted and nonconformists don’t do so well. “The Holdovers” is one of Payne’s best films in years, reuniting the director with Paul Giamatti, who starred in the director’s great “Sideways” 19 years ago. It’s astounding that it took them this long to work together again. Giamatti is the perfect channel for the very spirit of Payne’s work. He can be high energy or completely subdued by the weight of life. His best characters have despair in their bones. And yet, this movie is far from a downer. It also works as an excellent holiday movie, full of snow and Christmas, except the cheer comes from watching its characters be gloriously flawed, which can also make them heroic.

Paul Hunham (Giamatti) teaches ancient history at a New England boarding school, Barton Academy, which happens to be his alma mater. He should be a respected classicist, but life swerved into having him instruct the offspring of the elite before they go off to the Ivy League and cushy lives. No one likes him, not least because of his biting jabs at his students. The faculty also hates him, probably because they sense he knows he’s smarter than all of them combined. It’s almost as a passive aggressive stab that Paul is assigned the task of watching over a crop of students who won’t be going home for the holidays. Among them are the troubled Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a stranded young Mormon, Alex (Ian Dolley), and the pathological bully, Teddy (Brady Hepner). Paul’s only fellow staffer left behind is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s kitchen boss who is still mourning the death of her son in the Vietnam War. Once Teddy and Alex are able to leave, it’s just the classicist, the cook and Angus left to get to know each other.

“The Holdovers” is a refreshing return to form for Payne, who hasn’t made a film since 2017’s “Downsizing,” a quirky sci-fi fantasy that had more detractors than fans. This film is still visually ambitious in a stronger way. Before getting into the performances, cinematographer Eigil Bryld should be signaled out for the way he truly evokes the very texture and feel of a 1970s drama. Not just in tone, but it looks literally as if it were made in that decade. The screenplay by David Hemingson is the perfect vehicle for the visuals because everyone sounds and feels of another era. “Myself and my collaborators did a time travel challenge, where we pretended as if we were shooting in 1971,” Payne recently told Entertainment Voice, “what that did was put us in the mindset that we were not making a ‘period film’ but a contemporary film. We wanted the costume and production design not to rub our noses in how period it is. It had to be as banal and grimy as if we were making the film back then.” 

What absorbs beyond the look is the human element in every pore of the story. Payne’s characters tend to be downtrodden types or hilariously acidic like the cutthroat political satire “Election.” In “Sideways,” Giamatti truly broke through as an alcoholic teacher who could be a good writer, but he can’t get over his own insecurities and emotionally wrecking divorce. “The Holdovers” has bite but it is also warmer and hopeful without romanticism. Paul is like an older, wiser version of Giamatti’s Miles in “Sideways.” It’s easy to tell that he hides his fears and doubts about life by endlessly referencing the Greek and Roman classics, to the point of telling a Santa lounging around a bowling alley why his costume is historically inaccurate. He’s kind to Mary without any sense of superiority. It’s the snobby rich kids Paul deplores because they can be cruel while cruising through life. He relishes in sighing when they whine about assigned vacation reading on the Peloponnesian War. Angus is the one who shows some promise, but he’s been kicked out from two other schools. Why? The answer is found in how the student and teacher are forced to really know each other while stuck on campus during Christmas. 

It all has the makings of a familiar tearjerker, but Payne avoids endless clichés. Some scenes don’t lead to the expected payoffs, in a good way. A sweet colleague of Paul’s, Lydia (Carrie Preston), brings him cookies to the office and shows the kind of warmth he’ll never find from other faculty. So we assume later romance will bloom. Not quite, because life doesn’t work out that way. He instructs the students on the school’s rigorous ethics or Roman discipline. But when bumping into a former classmate who is now a prestigious university professor, Paul withers with Angus next to him, telling lies about his own career to save face. By the end of the film, and this is not a spoiler at all, Paul won’t get a major book deal or revenge on anyone. Instead, there’s the possibility of finding a new, richer rhythm to life. Dominica Sessa, in quite the impressive feature debut, brings real layers to Angus in addition to looking plucked right out of the 1970s. He’s not just some rebel teen but a bright young person who is battered and confused by the way life is constantly a struggle. His mother, now with a rich new husband, won’t let him visit for the holidays. He’s also not allowed to see his father, for reasons that later give the film one of its heartbreaking surprises. Da’Vine Joy Randolph deserves much recognition for her performance as well. She begins the film as the token background character who is a feisty counter to Paul’s grumpiness. It is all a mask for her incredible pain and loss. Her son could have gone to college, but the system sent him to die in a war abroad.

“In a way I’ve been making ‘70s movies all my life,” said Payne. “With Paul it felt like we had just worked together yesterday. It’s the feeling you have with good friends. It’s almost a direct continuation of what we did on ‘Sideways.’ He was a product of that world as well. He went Choate as a high school student and then went to Yale. Paul told me, ‘I know how to play this guy because I knew this guy.’” That inside knowledge creates the effect of a film where we can get lost in its corridors. By the vintage end credits, there are no great “lessons.” Nothing is preached. Instead, the characters grow by the act of being around each other, forcing conversation and finding understandings we miss in the rush of just passing by people at work, school or anywhere. Payne’s ear for comedy still rings true in moments of sudden, painful hilarity like a displaced shoulder after a reckless gag. Giamatti is given one-liners of stinging wit and intellectual viciousness. Yet, this is still a Christmas movie, and the gifts given are the ones we tend to miss often. When we truly get to know someone, we also learn about ourselves. 

The Holdovers” releases Oct. 27 in New York and Los Angeles, expands Nov. 3 in select theaters, and Nov. 10 in theaters nationwide.