It’s a shame that Alexander Payne isn’t more prolific; six years have passed since his last film appeared on theater screens, the underappreciated Downsizing. All the more reason to cheer for and welcome The Holdovers, the most satisfying film I’ve seen all year. Inspired by an obscure Marcel Pagnol picture Merlusse, Payne enlisted David Hemingson to expand its premise, update it and change the setting. He immediately pictured his Sideways star Paul Giamatti in the leading role and it’s impossible to envision anyone else in the part.
At first I wasn’t sure if I could bear spending time with the misanthropic teacher of Ancient Civilizations, let alone his snarkiest student, whom he is forced to babysit over winter break at the New England prep school where he has spent his entire life. It’s obvious that this unrepentant snob is going to be humanized over the course of the story and the student will learn important life lessons… but under Payne’s watchful eye it’s the journey that matters more than the destination.
The professor and his recalcitrant pupil have a fellow prisoner during the wintry holiday period: the woman who supervises the school kitchen. She is deeply mourning the death of her only child, a son who died in Vietnam because she couldn’t afford to send him to college, where he would have avoided the draft. Da’vine Joy Randolph brings both humanity and humor to this character beyond anything written in the screenplay. She is a marvel.
The Holdovers takes its time but rewards us with insights into human nature and the peculiarities of its three protagonists. One doesn’t expect such nuance from a mainstream movie anymore. It is not only set in the winter of 1970; it closely resembles a film from that period, which was Payne’s stated goal. The most talented filmmakers I meet cite American films of the early 1970s as their touchstone. Payne has crafted a movie that embodies their values and virtues.
Having seen it twice, I can’t begin to count the moments I cherish, from the use of the Swingle Singers and Gene Autry on the soundtrack to a cutaway of Guy Lombardo on television New Year’s Eve playing “Auld Lang Syne.” Payne went so far as to open his film with a vintage MPAA “R” rating card and a faux logo for Focus Features, which didn’t exist in 1970.
Paul Giamatti completely inhabits the role of pompous professor, and newcomer Dominic Sessa is equally credible as his most truculent student. I don’t think it’s too soon to predict a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Da’Vine Joy Randolph.
The Holdovers may be too slow and talky for some people but I simply loved it. Like the filmmaker’s best work, it deals with characters who struggle from day to day to live their lives—and that should make it relatable to just about any audience. The time and care that Alexander Payne put into this movie pay big dividends. It is a beautiful film.