In 2004, director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti teamed up on Sideways, which was up to that point, and remains to this day, the most successful project either of them was ever associated with. They didn’t work together again for two decades or so, but have now reunited with The Holdovers, in which Giamatti once again plays the director’s sad-sack leading man. The film seems to have all of the elements in place, and it has been one of the more lauded films of this year’s fall festival season. But it left me cold.
The Holdovers is set at Christmas in 1970, at a fancy prep school somewhere in New England. Picture Dead Poets Society, except instead of being inspired by Robin Williams, the students do little but express their seething contempt for their teacher. This is one of those films set in the 1970s that looks and feels like it was made in the New Hollywood era, complete with a mock “vintage” logo for Focus Features, which wouldn’t be founded for 30 years more years.
The action takes place over Christmas break when Giamatti’s Paul Hunham, a prep school teacher with a not-especially-cordial relationship with the school’s higher-ups, draws the undesirable assignment of sticking around during break with the handful of kids who have nowhere else to spend the holiday. Also around, in an arc that dwarfs Giamatti’s by several orders of magnitude, is Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph). She’s the school cook, also around over break, who’s grieving the recent death of her son in Vietnam. It’s heartbreaking work by Randolph, whose recent roles have mostly been in comedies.
At first a half-dozen kids are part of the mix, and I expect we’ll look back one day, like at past prep school movies like Dead Poets Society and School Ties, at how all of these actors became future stars. But Paul ends up only with Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), whose parents recently divorced and whose mother has ditched him to spend the holiday with her new husband. (Once we learn what really happened to Angus’ father, it’s the film’s biggest gut punch.)
The threat hanging over Angus is that if he gets kicked out of one more school, it’s off to military school, and then, most likely, a ticket to Vietnam.
Paul and Angus bond over their mutual loneliness and past traumas, and ultimately reach some level of understanding. A third-act vision to Boston, in particular, is the film’s most poignant part, and the production did an amazing job recreating a 1970s version of that city.
But there’s something here that keeps the film from finding another gear. Maybe it’s that the story feels small. Or that the Giamatti character’s plight isn’t as compelling as those of the other characters. Even so, all three of the main performances are outstanding. Giamatti just wrapped up a long run on Billions that allowed him to be something other than what he’s spent most of his movie career playing—either sympathetic losers, or the villains in biopics of music legends/Howard Stern. Randolph does the best work of her career, and Sessa looks like a future star.
With the exception of Election and The Descendants, I’ve never admired Payne’s films. He’s overly dependent on a couple of hobbyhorses, contempt for fat morons from the Midwest, and mooching relatives. His last film, Downsizing, had about four different big ideas that didn’t work together at all.
I suspect I’d like Sideways more if I watched it again now, especially now that I’m closer to the age of the characters, although I’ll never forget A.O. Scott’s theory that critics loved Sideways because they saw themselves in the film, a story of a white middle-aged man with boorish opinions who has thwarted literary ambitions and drinks too much. The Holdovers is a considerable improvement over Downsizing, although I’d put it as mid-tier Payne.