' ' Cinema Romantico: The Holdovers

Monday, December 18, 2023

The Holdovers

Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers” takes its title from a handful of students marooned at New England’s Barton Academy prep in 1970 over holiday break, left under the jurisdiction of Professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), a one-time Barton student himself who stayed put and became a cantankerous classics professor. These abandoned kids tease, bicker, and brawl, seeming to set them up as an eclectic clan waiting to rally around its unlikely leader a la “Dead Poets Society.” Instead, the rich kid’s dad drops out of the sky in a helicopter (“Talk about a deus ex machina,” to quote an eerily similar scene from “Mighty Aphrodite”) and whisks the holdovers away to go shushing all over a mountain. All except for Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), that is, whose parents can’t be reached, stuck behind with Hunham and Barton’s head cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), mourning a son who has died in Vietnam, kind of reconfiguring “The Holdovers” as “The Breakfast Club” if Bender, Principal Vernon, and the Janitor formed a surrogate family in the halls of Shermer instead.

From the moment a jolly, whistling Hunham returns graded tests, most of which are in the D and F territory, to his pupils, you can see “The Holdovers” taking shape. That if Hunham views it as his mission to teach these “degenerates” and “reprobates” a lesson, he will be taught a lesson instead, and that because Angus has managed to carve out a B-, practically an A, he will probably be the one to teach it. Such predictability isn’t automatically or inherently bad. A foregone conclusion can be quite moving, in fact, if the movie building to it gathers force along the way, but there is a gnawing disconnect in David Hemingson’s screenplay.

If “The Holdovers” initially suggests something character driven, it becomes more beholden to the plot as it goes along, the diagrammatical nature of Hemingson’s script moving to the fore. Indeed, the script specifically seeks to surprise us, which we know because it deliberately withholds information to spring on us at the end, but that withholding means the intriguing complications and riddles of its characters all become tied to one respective revelation as explanation, this is why they are the way they are, ultimately evocative of a nagging artificially sweetened sensation holding the movie back. Despite the Vietnam War hovering over the proceedings, “The Holdovers” maintains a conspicuously apolitical stance, a disappointingly sanitized view of the past furthered in the photography, shot digitally but tricked up to look like grainy, scratchy 35mm, those ersatz rough edges underlining how the movie sands off so many of its own rough edges.

If there is a saving grace to “The Holdovers,” it’s the performances. There’s a lot of schtick to the character of Hunham, his glass eye and booze dependency, and on paper, he might follow a preordained arc, but by infusing this curmudgeon with a palpable, amusingly self-satisfied twinkle, and by refusing to douse his pompousness even as he sees the light, Giamatti renders him a true three-dimensional human being knottier than the script would lead you to believe. Randolph’s quieter countenance, meanwhile, becomes the counterbalance to Giamatti’s vivacity. Though she evinces a razor sharp wit, it’s her physical stillness that resonates, truly carrying the weight of immense grief weighing her down. One scene at a Christmas party in town becomes movingly uncomfortable in her character’s refusal to grin and bear it, so uncomfortable that it made me wonder if that’s partly why the narrative scales of this trio undoubtedly tip toward Hunham and Angus, like the movie didn’t know what to make of what she feels. The best scenes here are those Hunham and Mary share watching tv late at night, nursing drinks, and nursing the kind of pain and complex feelings a movie like “The Holdovers” wouldn’t begin to know what to do with.

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