By Sam Tucker
Alexander Payne has been an artist who, while respected, has a strange place in film circles (by that I mean on X [formerly Twitter] and the many film podcasts I enjoy). Starting with Election and through Sideways, he was a consistent item in the Academy Awards discussion, and got high praise for his crisp writing…at least at the time. Upon reviewing his works, The Descendents, About Schmidt, and Sideways, he does seem to have a lot to say about aging, cisgender, straight white men and their problems, particularly about them being landowners like in The Descendents. Is he truly just writing and/or directing what he knows, or was there some broad-brushed idea he was going at in focusing on such a specific protagonist?
As his first film in six years, The Holdovers answers that question with a ton of heart and real characters with real struggles. I had the chance to catch an early screening of this at IPH, and can say that it would be a wonderful watch for this holiday season!
Frequent muse Paul Giamatti is brought back and given a huge path to blaze through as a pretentious ancient history teacher who is stuck watching students who have nowhere to go during their private school’s winter break. Notably, he is stuck with one of his bright but troublesome students (fantastic first performance from Dominic Sessa), and the grieving head chef (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is also excellent). While “trapped” in the school with limited spaces, open and dwindling options for meals, they learn much about each other’s backgrounds, and maybe…perhaps…get a little bit of the Christmas Spirit back into their lives?
While a slightly reductive summary, the plot of this movie has enough to keep you engaged into what is effectively a very character-focused stage play on the big screen. Much like a lighter and less violent Hateful 8, our main characters are stuck where they are regardless of whether they don’t want to be there or try to leave. There’s a moment about a quarter the way through the movie that I thought would take a character out and the moment is instead used to continue learning about his background and how he got to be the damaged person he is to this day.
BUT when all seems to be stagnant they do end up taking a trip to the big city which has some real gut-punches and emotional catharsis for our characters. I think they all end up in a better place, although they still seem to be physically or mentally stuck in a certain way. This certainly isn’t a movie you watch for the epic twists and turns or one that even keeps you guessing…it’s all just ornaments on the Christmas Tree of the performances.
Giamatti is at his best here, and you can tell the time he spent with the writer of the screenplay, David Hemingson, for this role really sings. Dominic Sessa also comes out of the gates screaming in this role, and while both are going to be talked about in depth come awards time, Da’Vine Joy Randolph is the one who, I believe, carries the film. While having about ¼ as much dialogue as the other two roles, her quiet but room-filling presence brings so much more humanity to the cold New England life this trio finds themselves in. This also shows that Payne is capable of straying from his white male gaze/themes, as Randolph gets a fantastic arc of her own with a ton of screen time.
Overall, The Holdovers was a real surprise to me. I respect Payne for his work, but agree with the X critics that it is usually flat and traditional. I do think this is a fantastic movie in general, and is only a plus that it fits so well into the holiday season.
So as always, head over to the IPH, turn your phone off, and enjoy a nice cold beverage while your heart warms up with the three unlikeliest saints of the holiday.