Alexander Payne is up to his old tricks. The celebrated director behind such heralded films as Sideways, Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska has returned to cinemas with The Holdovers, another tale of a cantankerous anti-hero with a wincing wit. This time Payne’s cutting comedy is headlined by Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and newcomer Dominic Sessa.
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Early buzz suggests The Holdovers could be the American filmmaker’s best shot yet at Best Picture. But can this bittersweet comedy live up to its festival hype?
What is the buzz around The Holdovers?
Payne’s latest debuted strong out of the Telluride Film Festival, sparking enthusiasm at the Toronto International Film Festival, which resulted in packed screenings and rolled into a new wave of largely positive reviews. On paper, The Holdovers is immediately promising, reuniting Payne with leading man Paul Giamatti, who starred in Sideways — a caustic comedy that earned the former a Best Director nod and Best Adapted Screenplay win.
In The Holdovers, Giamatti once more leads a tightly knit ensemble, made up of lovable losers seeking connection in spite of social awkwardness. Written by David Hemingson (Don’t Trust The B—– in Apartment 23!), the dramedy is set in 1970 at the posh but stodgy Barton boarding school for boys, just outside of Boston.
With the Christmas break fast approaching, the prickly Professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is vexed but unsurprised when he’s assigned to play babysitter to the holdovers — students not going home to their families over the two-week academic vacation. This cranky crew includes Angus (Dominic Sessa), a 15-year-old with a sharp mind and a self-destructive streak. Cooking for the lot is long-time cafeteria manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who’s enduring her first holiday alone since her 19-year-old son (and recent Barton grad) died in the Vietnam War.
Here is a stage well set for culture clash, as well as bursts of emotion and explorations of privilege. A triple-hander, Hemingson’s script shifts its focus from Hunham to Angus to Mary and back again, revealing first the facades of intellectual superiority, cockiness, and resilience they put forth to others. But steadily, private moments and forced interactions over an emotionally charged time give way to revelations of tragic backstories, shameful secrets, and, ultimately, vulnerability.
It’s the kind of rich storytelling that critics and the Academy relish. And bolstered by a cast delivering popping performances, Payne could be poised to finally take home Best Picture, after a trio of nominations (The Descendants, Nebraska, and Sideways).
The Holdovers is moving and funny, but wobbly.
Giamatti is in his comfort zone playing the kind of grumpy old bastard who might be mocked by the young and hip — his professor is nicknamed “Walleye” by insensitive students snarking over an ocular handicap — but can win audiences over with relatable gripes and righteously funny rejoinders. “Life is like a chicken’s ladder,” he scolds one particularly snotty student, “Short and shitty!”
It’s nothing new to see Giamatti’s snarling grouch soften in the face of another pitiful character’s radiant need. Here, he first offers compassion to Mary, who refuses to let the hurt of her grief show to the entitled brats who crack jokes about her cooking. Randolph carries a world-weariness that some might recall from her work on Only Murders of the Building. But outside that manic setting, the actress offers a chillier brand of ennui. Her movements are almost mechanical in the kitchen, as if she’s going through the motions of work, unable to exist in the moment. So, when a social setting arises in which she might cut loose, there’s a soft shift in her physicality that shudders with the threat of breaking down. Far from a tearful Oscar-baiting performance, Randolph (who won much critical acclaim for her supporting role in Dolemite Is My Name) delivers a nuanced performance of muted agony and trembling joy. It’s a portrait of grief so real it gives goosebumps.
Between Giamatti and Randolph, The Holdovers offers heavyweight talent tackling mature themes of loss and regret. Dominic Sessa, making his film debut, is in an unenviable position to match them. To his credit, he has a striking screen presence from the first smirk, suggesting not only the mischievousness of his teen mess but also a flash of performative confidence. Sessa comes off as fearless, whether facing off against Giamatti’s grumbling insults or taking in Randolph’s pulsing pain. Yet when the movie demands he shoulder its storytelling, the tone wobbles. Perhaps it’s on purpose, Payne leaning into the wonky teen angst of it all. But the lamentations of this poor little rich boy, though justified through backstory, don’t hit as hard as those of his elder colleagues in heartache.
When the focus is on the teen in its central triad, The Holdovers feels less sharp and more like a feel-good riff on The Dead Poets Society or Girl, Interrupted. Its heroes face pain, but not in a way that would push the tone to tearjerker. Levity is infused throughout with a soundtrack alive with rousing or winsome songs, like “Time Has Come Today,” “Knock Three Times,” and “Dance the Night Away.” The cutting punchlines hit hard, but then softness comes — earned and organic — through tender moments between gruff customers. A color palette warm and nostalgic invites us to look ahead to a future less cold than this winter tale. And, perhaps best of all, Payne fills his film with a stellar supporting cast that makes every archetype and throwaway line sing.
Carrie Preston sparkles as a chipper faculty member. Young Jim Kaplan swiftly wins our empathy as a new kid desperate to fit in. Gillian Vigman and Tate Donovan pop up to swiftly bring dimension to a fractured family situation. And a real-life liquor store clerk named Joe Howell steals a scene with delivery so crisply Bostonian that it scored howls of laughter across multiple TIFF screenings.
All told, The Holdovers is a terrific Payne film, bursting with sharp laughs and searing sweetness. Though it teeters when seeking depth in teen angst, this crackling comedy with a dramatic edge is nonetheless a crowdpleaser. Affable and earnest, it could well be a strong contender come awards season.
The Holdovers was reviewed out of its international premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release Oct. 27 and theaters nationwide Nov. 10.