Since his 2009 masterpiece, Sideways, Alexander Payne has had an up-and-down career. Many of his projects stalled out or ended up with other directors. Still, the three films he has directed since his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar win, The Descendants (2011), Nebraska (2013), and Downsizing (2017), while not of the same caliber as Sideways, all contain much to recommend. The same can be said for The Holdovers, which reunites Payne with his Sideways leading man Paul Giamatti. The picture is a 1970s period piece written and designed to feel more like a film that came out during the year its story takes place than a movie that uses its story to look back wistfully at a bygone era. How much it succeeds in that goal is debatable, but there's no denying the simple pleasures this approach affords.
Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a curmudgeonly teacher disliked by both his students and fellow teachers at a New England prep school. Since he doesn't have much of a life outside of work, he is assigned the task of remaining on campus during Christmas break to oversee the small group of students who don't leave school to be with their families. During these two weeks, he forms an unlikely bond with one of the young men he's charged with babysitting, Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), as well as with the school's head cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph from Dolemite Is My Name, The United States vs. Billie Holiday, and the Hulu series Only Murders in the Building). All three of these characters are damaged people in one way or another, and the time they spend together alters the emotional trajectory of their lives.
Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson set out to make a film that evokes the type of character study pictures that critics and filmmakers love to say aren't made anymore, which is an absurd sentiment (unless all you watch are blockbusters) since the majority of indie movies released in the last twenty years are far more character-driven than plot-driven. And let's not kid ourselves—The Holdovers follows the standard screenplay formula to a T. From the humorous expository scenes to the timing of how the stakes continue to be raised to the extended road trip that closes out the second act, this script feels like it came out of a Robert McKee seminar. I don't mean that comment as derogatory; I am just pointing out that the narrative structure, as in many of the 1970s classics people view as anti-Hollywood, is quite solid. In fact, I think the film could have been improved had Hemingson paid a little more attention to technical formalities like foreshadowing (for example, a key decision Angus makes late in the movie feels like it comes out of left field). In such cases, a closer adherence to narrative principles doesn't undermine the character study—it enhances it.
Still, The Holdovers effectively conveys the early-70s vibe its filmmakers intend. Shooting entirely on location, cinematographer Eigil Bryld (In Bruges, The Report, No Hard Feelings) and production designer Ryan Warren Smith (Wendy and Lucy, Green Room, Lean on Pete) do a marvelous job creating the feel of an old New England prep school and recreating Boston circa 1970. I dare say Bostonians and Ivy Leaguers will enjoy this movie more than Midwestern folks liked Nebraska (everyone I know from that region found Nebraska condescending). Even though Boston has become a hub of film production since the 2007 tax incentives, we are provincial enough to squeal with delight at seeing our city on screen, especially when the old town is lovingly recreated by a crew of mostly local technicians and craftspeople (I saw The Holdovers at its 35mm premiere at my local cinema, The Somerville Theatre, which makes an appearance in the movie, so you can imagine that this was popular with the 850-person crowd!)
The filmmakers lay the 1970s stylistic touches on a bit thick. The digital photography has been treated with too much artificial grain and filters (meant to mimic the imperfections of celluloid). And some of the songs used to underscore key moments feel so Cat Stevens-y you wonder why Payne didn't just use Cat Stevens. Movies that attempt to recreate the feel of films of another era can often come across as no fresher than the constant recycling of tried and true IP. One of the things that makes Sideways, in my opinion, one of the all-time great works of cinema is that it doesn't feel like any film that came before it. And, though they are less successful, I admire The Descendants, Nebraska, and Downsizing for their originality.
But there's a charming, comforting, and even refreshing predictability to The Holdovers. We know exactly where this movie is going to end up as soon as it starts, just as we know exactly what type of character Giamatti is going to be before he makes his first entrance. The Christmas setting enhances this awareness since we pretty much know how nearly all holiday movies will play out before we buy our tickets. But that doesn't stop us from returning to the ones we love repeatedly, sometimes annually. I don't imagine The Holdovers will become a yearly tradition like It's a Wonderful Life, but I wouldn't be surprised if I occasionally pop it in the BluRay player during holidays at some point over the next decades.
Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti reunite for this delightful throwback to the early '70s about a curmudgeonly prep school teacher stuck watching over the students who remain on campus for Christmas break.