Several years ago I included a parenthetical comment in a column that Americans might be jollier if Christmas trees, decorations and outdoor lights were kept up long after the season had passed into the miserable months (at least in the Northeast) of January and February, when it’s dark, and crusty, dirty and yellow clumps of snow are scattered on lawns, alleys and streets. Furthermore, Santa Claus blimps and murals would add magnificently to the July 4th cookouts, fireworks—before they’re banned—and parades. You say daft, I say uplifting, and there’s no splitting the difference because my idea wins this potato-sack race.
That round of vibrating jingle bells went off in my head two weekends ago upon seeing Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers at a matinee here in Baltimore with my wife and son Nicky; it’s not often the three of us agree unequivocally on a movie but outside in the sunshine we simultaneously said, “Instant Christmas classic.” That’s a cinematic accomplishment. My favorites in this genre aren’t surprising: It’s a Wonderful Life, the 1951 Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, Bad Santa (Billy Bob Thornton’s best role save for his career-best four-season run of Goliath), Scrooged, A Charlie Brown Christmas (for Linus’ soliloquy) perhaps Trading Places.
I’m not big fan of Paul Giamatti (excepting Payne’s Sideways) and he nearly made my automatic veto list (like Ben Stiller and post-Oprah Tom Cruise) after seeing his repulsive character in the primetime soap opera Billions—I like Damian Lewis a lot, but dropped the show five episodes in—but his performance in The Holdovers as a left-behind, beyond-bitter and ridiculed Classics teacher at a New England prep school (called Barton as a substitute for Deerfield), set in 1970, was so funny that, if I cared, deserves the Best Actor Oscar that’ll likely be nabbed by Cillian Murphy for Oppenheimer. Ditto for Dominic Sessa and Da’ Vine Joy Randolph, who complete the trio of “holdovers,” people (like young Ebenezer Scrooge) who have nowhere to go for the holidays. It’s a weird “feel-good” story: after the three come to like each other’s company and have a lot of strange adventures, and verbal jousting, Giamatti’s Paul Hunham is still a sad-sack, Randolph’s Mary Lamb, the school’s foul-mouthed, nip-at-the-bottle and riotous cook, still grieves her son’s death in Vietnam, and only Sessa’s Angus Tully, 16, whose family life is ugly, has hope for a bright future. Nevertheless, the “good cheer,” however temporary, of the three is infectious and I smiled broadly at the 133-minute film.
My quibbles are few: before vacation begins, the adolescents in Hunham’s class all have nearly shoulder-length hair, which wasn’t yet the norm in public education, even at Ivy League-grooming prep schools. I’d have preferred a completely contemporary soundtrack (there is the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today” and the Allmans’ “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”) instead of relatively new music, and one ancillary character, inspecting a “dime bag,” says, “sweet”; as a 15-year-old in 1970 I can’t remember anyone saying that. On the other hand, the depiction of 1970 Boston is dead-on, just as I remember from that time, taking a detour there after visiting my brother Gary at the University of New Hampshire.
I was surprised to read Kyle Smith’s Wall Street Journal pan of the film. Talk about cranks: Smith could double for Giamatti’s Hunham. Briefly, he writes: “Mr. Payne is so unable to trim away meaningless scenes involving inconsequential characters that the main action doesn’t even begin until 40 minutes in, when the three principals are left alone with their sorrows.”
The Holdovers could’ve been trimmed by 10 minutes, I suppose, but there’s nothing “inconsequential” about this glorious movie. When Hunham remembers he has balls and tells off school administrators, that’s glorious; when Lamb plays an Artie Shaw record at a Christmas party as a reminder of dead son’s favorite tunes, that’s heartbreaking but also glorious; and when Angus gets into a fight early on with a particularly idiotic, prejudiced and entitled classmate, that’s glorious.
Favorite Christmas movies are always personal—although some on social media stupidly try to bait others on the subject—but I’ll gladly watch The Holdovers again around this time next year.
Christmas isn’t so far away, so take a look at the clues to figure out what year the above picture (my wife Melissa in the living room of our Tribeca loft) was taken.
FBI agent Earl Edwin Pitts pleads guilty to selling secrets to Russia; the Detroit Red Wings win the Stanley Cup; Mike Tyson has a meal of ear; Ellen Degeneres comes out as gay; the first front-page color photograph appears in The New York Times; Steve Jobs returns to Apple as CEO; Jacob Elordi is born and James Stewart dies; Soundgarden break up; Tomorrow Never Dies, the second James Bond film starring Pierce Brosnan, is released; the Astros’ Kyle Tucker is born and Curt Flood dies; Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is published; Dario Fo wins the Nobel Prize for literature; Intel CEO Andy Grove is Time’s Man of the Year; Queen Elizabeth and her husband (who was that?) celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary; and Bob Dylan performs for Pope John Paul II in Bologna.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023