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Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

MOVIE REVIEW
The Holdovers (2023)

On paper, “The Holdovers” appears to be right in Alexander Payne’s wheelhouse: much like his 1999 classic, “Election,” the story takes place in a school and centers on a teacher – another curmudgeon played by Paul Giamatti, just like in Mr. Payne’s 2004 Oscar-nominated “Sideways.”

Jim Taylor isn’t involved this time, which is disappointing but understandable given their disastrous 2017 “Downsizing.” While Mr. Payne has made a career of rooting for underdogs, with “The Holdovers” his sympathies appear to be shifting toward the privileged and the establishment.

Mr. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, an adjunct at Barton Academy, which he once attended as a pupil. While Matthew Broderick’s Mr. McAllister from “Election” still exuded idealism while unethically tilting the scale in favor of the underprivileged, Mr. Hunham seems to have thrown his hands up and has treated his spoiled and entitled students with contempt, assigning homework to be completed over the winter break.

Mr. Hunham isn’t catching much of a break himself. Having flunked the child of a major school donor, he is given the unenviable responsibility of chaperoning students who have nowhere to go during the break and are thus stuck on campus. He isn’t about to go easier on them in the spirit of the holidays, though, even as they reel from their families’ abandonment. Eventually all parents show up to retrieve their kids – except for the mother of Angus (Dominic Sessa), who prioritizes her own honeymoon over family time with her son. Miraculously, Angus and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cafeteria cook, manage to thaw Mr. Hunham’s frosty façade to reveal his humane core.

Perhaps Mr. Payne has gone soft in the two decades since “Election.” Here is an entire school of Tracy Flicks, yet somehow he doesn’t depict them as total monsters. Incidentally, he and Mr. Taylor are reuniting with Reese Witherspoon for an “Election” sequel, “Tracy Flick Can’t Win,” adapted from Tom Perrotta’s 2022 follow-up novel. Maybe they’ve all had a change of heart about the go-getter they once loathed.

The film’s titles (and a one-off retro Focus Features logo) are supposed to evince ’70s aesthetics, but there is little else visually or stylistically to otherwise suggest a period piece. Indeed, Mr. Payne doesn’t reference in the press notes any particular film or director of that era as inspiration, only saying that he’s essentially been making ’70s films all along.

More in his “American Splendor” mode than his “Sideways” mode, Mr. Giamatti certainly impresses as the best man for the role. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in this, even if it isn’t that much of a stretch for him. The character’s later transformation feels genuine. Mr. Sessa and Ms. Randolph certainly hold their own in supporting roles against Mr. Giamatti. Though there’s not much visually or stylistically to speak of – the snowy New England is even bleaker than the Midwest settings of Mr. Payne’s signature films – at minimum the drama holds your interest.

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