- Directed by Alexander Payne
- Written by David Hemingson
- Starring Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph
- Classification 14A; 133 minutes
- Opens in Toronto theatres Nov. 3, expands across Canada Nov. 10
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to” is not only the maxim of the marketing campaign behind Alexander Payne’s new dramedy The Holdovers – it’s a philosophy built into the film itself. Or at least its first 10 minutes, with the movie’s opening credits and initial scenes deliberately recalling the time-worn studio dramas of the early 1970s, complete with a faux-retro Focus Features logo (even though the company wasn’t founded until the early aughts) and frequent scratches across the grainy 35 mm film stock. It is as if the movie had been fed a few too many times into the local cinema’s aging projector because audiences just fell in love with it too damn much.
This trick – already pulled off by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez with their time-capsule double bill Grindhouse – doesn’t last too long into The Holdovers: As of the film’s second “reel,” the picture reverts back to a more crisp, scratch-free image that today’s moviegoers are used to. But the idea that Payne would even explicitly engineer his film as a throwback to a more creatively stimulating, intellectually respectful and socially conscious time in Hollywood filmmaking requires a heaping order of self-confidence. And, for most of The Holdovers, Payne earns it.
Sitting somewhere between 2002′s About Schmidt and 2013′s Nebraska in the great Payne canon of curmudgeons, The Holdovers takes place sometime in the early 1970s at Barton Academy, a wealthy prep school situated on a perfectly snowy campus near Boston. It is here where the sons of the American elite prepare themselves to lead corporations and government – and where history teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) delights in taking his students down a peg or two. (To hammer home the film’s throwback vibe, Hunham is not just any history professor, but the school’s leading expert on ancient civilizations.)
A grump of the highest order, Hunham quotes Cicero, abhors television and appears to have no life outside Barton. So he thinks nothing of it when he’s asked, once again, to stay on campus over Christmas break so that he can watch over the holdovers – that is, the handful of young boys who, through bad luck or familial circumstances, have no home to return to for the holidays. With only the school’s head cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) around for adult company, Hunham is forced to slowly bond with the misfits left in his charge, including the rebellious but firecracker-bright Angus (Dominic Sessa), who is mourning the death of his father while his mom takes a sunny holiday with her new husband.
It does not take a Barton-level scholar to see where The Holdovers is going – will Hunham let down his guard and reveal his traumatic past? Will Angus learn to accept his life circumstances rather than bemoan them? – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a tremendous amount of rich, warm, full-hearted fun to be had on the way to the obvious destination. This is a character-first movie that embodies the best, most ambitious spirit of mainstream American entertainment. There is a joy watching interesting people change for the better while in a carefully crafted environment – a third-act trip to Boston feels like a true time warp thanks to meticulous production design – and Payne knows just how to balance the sour and sweet.
Essential to keeping everything perfectly tasteful, though, is the film’s leading trio of performers. Giamatti, working with Payne for the first time since 2004′s Sideways (a phenomenon whose box-office success seems like another lost-to-time artifact), alternates wonderfully between being perfectly prickly and crushingly sad. Hunham is cursed with a glass eye (which Payne seems to cheekily switch from left to right throughout the film), hemorrhoids (the very first shot of his campus apartment contains a tube of Preparation H), and an inability to process the bodily chemical trimethylamine (which causes him to reek of fish toward the end of the day) – he just straddles the line between ripe victim and ornery underdog. It is difficult to think of any other performer than Giamatti pushing the character to the sympathetic side of that ledger.
Just as good, though, is the perpetually underestimated Randolph, who gives Mary a quiet and determined kind of no-nonsense strength. Having lost her only son to the Vietnam War – he’s the lone Barton student to have died in the conflict, thanks to every other family being able to buy their way out – Mary could be a chore of a role, a weeping-mother caricature of pity. Yet Randolph is too sharp to play that game, as is David Hemingson’s script. Together with Payne, they create something funny, sharp and stirring.
Sessa, meanwhile, holds his own as the constantly agitated Angus – an especially impressive feat given that the young actor is a total newcomer to the screen, plucked from drama school auditions. A little bit Adam Driver and a little bit Lucas Hedges, Sessa gives off a raw and near desperate kind of neediness, which fits the neuroses of Angus as well as perhaps the rookie actor himself.
Is The Holdovers’ insistence on engineering itself as an unearthed cultural fossil necessary, or even accurate? In interviews, Payne has shied away from naming specific films that served as inspirations, or just where The Holdovers might sit on the axis of hallowed 1970s drama. Maybe there’s a little bit of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail, some of James Bridges’ The Paper Chase, and a little of Arthur Hiller’s Love Story. Or, more accurately, The Holdovers is a distinct product of its own era – an inevitably, if admirably, well-funded rebuke to the idea that American studios are only making franchise-able content.
If that argument is what got Payne however many tens of millions of dollars it cost to hire his perfect cast, secure the rights to some excellent music and recreate the New England of the 1970s from scratch, then so be it. But for a film about the importance of honesty – about how people can only face the future once they’ve admitted to the failures of their past – there’s a noticeable disingenuous sensibility tying The Holdovers together. Who said those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it? Pretty sure Hunham might know.