The Holdovers comes to us from director Alexander Payne, an arthouse darling with multiple Oscar nominees under his belt. The screenplay comes to us from David Hemingway, a journeyman TV writer responsible for not much of note. A peculiar combination, but the last time Payne directed Paul Giamatti in a starring role, we got Sideways. So let’s see what we’ve got here.
The year is 1970, and we lay our scene at Barton Academy, a boys’ boarding school in New England where the rich and entitled can keep their spoiled kids out of sight until they’re sent off to some Ivy League college. Because God forbid any of them (with one notable exception, whom we’ll get to later) should be sent off to fight with the hoi polloi in Vietnam.
Giamatti plays Paul “Wall-eye” Hunham, a Barton alumnus who now teaches ancient history there. In fact, he’s been teaching for so long that the current headmaster (played by Andrew Garman) is a former student of his. Hunham is a classic “Ivory Tower” intellectual, to the point where if it isn’t in a textbook, a museum, a historical landmark, or a place of higher learning, it doesn’t exist. He’s old, fat, and physically incapable of exerting himself in much of any way. He has a visual impairment (hence the nickname) and a congenital metabolism defect leaves him with unbearable body odor.
Put simply, Hunham is obsessively devoted to history, and he hates other people. To wit: When Hunham is first introduced, we learn that he flunked a congressman’s entitled idiot son, to the great frustration of the school administration. Of course, Hunham argues that integrity means nothing if it’s for sale and ignoramuses shouldn’t be handed everything simply because they’re rich.
But then we see Hunham handing out the final exams, and it turns out that he failed almost all of his students. Could it be that all of his students are rich spoiled pinheads? Or maybe he’s a bitter and miserable old man taking it out on everyone around him? Maybe a bit of both?
Anyway, due to another teacher’s last-minute maneuvering and white lies, Hunham is tasked with looking after the students who are stuck at Barton with nowhere else to go for the two weeks until New Year’s. Eventually, the students and faculty file out until it’s only three (or four, depending on how you count) people left on campus. In addition to Hunham, there’s Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), manager of the school cafeteria. Mary took the job to get her son into Barton, only for poor Curtis to get killed in Vietnam shortly after graduation. Mary is still deep in grief over that.
Oh, and did I mention that Curtis was black? By all available evidence (to the best of my recollection), Curtis was the only black kid to ever attend Barton, the only alumnus who couldn’t afford to go to college after graduation, the only student who got drafted, and the only one who got KIA in Vietnam. The film doesn’t put too blunt a point on it, but this seems like a relevant detail, no?
Then we have Angus Tully, a student played by newcomer Dominic Sessa. Angus’ father is… ahem out of the picture, his mother recently remarried, and she’s taken her new husband on a last-minute honeymoon that made them completely unavailable. Yes, this rich woman and her new wealthy husband left her son in a lurch and cut off all communication with him because they needed a break. Makes you wonder about the spoiled entitled parents behind these spoiled entitled kids.
The bulk of the action and drama is centered around these three, but I’d be remiss not to mention Danny (Naheem Garcia), a janitor who pokes his head in every now and then, positioning himself as a possible love interest for Mary. Nothing is ever done with this potential arc.
The upshot is that we have these three misfits stuck together alone on an abandoned campus in the middle of nowhere for two snow-covered weeks. And they all have to bunk in the infirmary because maintenance has shut off the heating pretty much everywhere else. Making things worse, Hunham is a backwards-thinking disciplinarian who insists that the holidays are no time to slack off studies, and pain builds character.
Until Angus gets his shoulder dislocated in an accident. After that gruesome lesson in what pain really looks like, relations between Hunham and Angus start to smooth over and they open up with each other like they never have with anyone else.
Here we have two bitter and stubborn assholes, intelligent to fault, who want isolation even as they need validation. But at least Angus is a brooding hormonal teenager — what excuse does Hunham have?
Hunham is a man who cannot make any sense of the present, and the future looks increasingly bleak, so he keeps himself buried in the past. But as the film unfolds, we come to find out that Hunham never left his old high school because he couldn’t fit in anywhere else and nobody else will come anywhere near him. Even more fascinating, while Hunham will talk for ages about the Greeks and Romans of antiquity, he’s frightfully sensitive about his own personal history.
The same could be said of Angus, who got dealt a seriously shitty hand with his parents and his childhood. That said, even if Angus got dropped at boarding school so he could be someone else’s problem, the fact remains that his parents still paid and provided for his first-class education at Barton. If Angus can get his head out of his ass long enough to apply himself and get that damned chip off his shoulder, he’s got a great future ahead of him.
Compare that to Hunham. How much of a future does that old bastard have left, and how much of it is he wasting at Barton? What legacy is he leaving behind, except for a few thousand brow-beaten students who hate his guts? And as long as it’s those last couple weeks of December — traditionally a time for hope, compassion, optimism, new beginnings, being with friends and loved ones, and so on — how can Hunham and Angus help turn each other around?
So it’s perfectly clear, there is a lot going on in this film thematically. To sum it all up as succinctly as I can, this is a story about three motley misfits who don’t want to be in this situation, forced to live and learn together as they try and make the best of what they can. It’s a microcosm of the entire world, in a way. After all, none of us asked to be here, we didn’t choose our family or where and when we were born, yet here we are with all our baggage and and obligations and all the gifts we take for granted. All we have is each other, and we only have this brief time together, so why spend that time making everyone else miserable? Hell, why be miserable at all?
Paul Giamatti is indispensable here, as nobody else can play an endearing sad-sack quite like he can. He’s playing perfectly within his wheelhouse here, with a director who’s proven that he knows how to work with Giamatti at his finest, so it speaks volumes that Dominic Sessa is holding his own as a scene partner on his first try. As for Da’Vine Joy Randolph, she does admirably well playing the beating heart of the picture, a third party to call the boys out on their bullshit as necessary.
So, are there any nitpicks? Well, for every supporting character who helps to make a crucial point (Carrie Preston comes to mind, playing a potential love interest for Hunham), there’s a supporting character who doesn’t amount to much more than a dangling loose end (Angus’ love interest, played by Darby Lee-Stack). This is a 133-minute movie that could have and probably should have been trimmed down to two hours.
For an awards-season dramedy, The Holdovers is nicely charming. The pacing drags in spots, but the lead characters are so compelling and the plot is crammed with so many thematic layers that I couldn’t help having fun unpacking the film as I watched it. The film has brains and heart in abundance, and it’s worth seeing the film just to watch Paul Giamatti in peak form. I have no doubt that this will be mandatory viewing for awards completionists, and anyone in the mood for a bit of intelligent feel-good cinema would do well to check this out.