Del and Mladen review ‘The Holdovers’
“The Holdovers” Starring Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb, Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully, and others. Directed by Alexander Payne. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. Rated R. Streaming on Peacock (free to subscribers) and for $19.99 on Apple TV, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu and Prime.
Plot summary: A crusty prep school history teacher is maneuvered into supervising a group of boys who can’t go home for Christmas. The two-week holiday break results in an unexpected dénouement for both teacher and student with life-altering results.
Are there spoilers in this review: No.
Every now and then a movie comes along that is so smart, cleverly written and well-acted that you can’t help being seduced by its charms. “The Holdovers” is one of those movies. It’s been nominated for five Academy Awards and if anything, that’s a couple too few. It truly is a gem.
“The Holdovers” takes place in 1970 at a stuffy New England prep school, Barton Academy, where Giamatti’s Paul Hunham has taken refuge from life. He’s disliked by students and faculty for his acid personality and relentless dedication to perfection – not even the senator’s idiot son gets any slack from Mr. Hunham.
Pitted against Mr. Hunham is the usual array of spoiled, dysfunctional rich kids, including one who shows a whiff of promise, the aquiline Angus “Anus” Tully, a tall, sharp-featured young man who’s wise beyond his years but still a kid at heart. He and Mr. Hunham become antagonists, a conflict that’s sharpened when Mr. Hunham becomes the faculty member responsible for supervising the “holdovers,” those students who can’t go home for Christmas, and Mr. Tully becomes one of those unfortunate holdovers.
Shepherding Mr. Hunham on his journey of self-discovery is the wounded Mary Lamb, played with understated sweetness and pain by Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Mary’s son, a promising Barton student himself, couldn’t escape the draft and was killed in Vietnam, a tragedy worsened by the fact he could have made it at an Ivy League school but lacked the funds – or the bone spurs – to get there.
The chemistry between Mr. Hunham, Mr. Tully and Mary Lamb becomes distilled to another level of pathos when the other holdovers are allowed to go on a ski vacation to Colorado while Mr. Tully is forced to remain at Barton because his parents are incommunicado. The three become a kind of pseudo family, with the irascible Mr. Hunham as the reluctant father who must learn to show a little humanity and cut himself some of the slack he refuses to give others, Mary as the grief-stricken mother who must rediscover joy – and her purpose – in the wake of her son’s death, and the smart-alecky Angus Tully, on the cusp of becoming a man were it not for his child-like need to be loved by his mom and his real dad. Angus is on the verge of learning that adults are also fallible and he has two excellent instructors in Mr. Humham and Mary Lamb.
Giamatti is perfect as Paul Hunham and I predict he’ll win the Oscar for best actor. Randolph brings a long-suffering grace to her role and she too may be rewarded with a best supporting actress Oscar. David Hemingson’s script imbues the story with intelligence and humor while avoiding the clichés of the Embattled Teacher genre. What surprises me is that Dominic Sessa wasn’t nominated for his role as Angus Tully, nor Alexander Payne for best director. “Barbie” wasn’t the only movie snubbed by this year’s Oscars.
I thought “The Holdovers” was a terrific movie, a rare combination of fine direction, acting and writing. It reminded me of a 1960s-vintage Simon & Garfunkle song, whip smart and catchy but at the same time human without mercy.
I’m giving it an A.
Well, at least Del didn’t throw something “Saltburn”-y at me for our next review. I fear him when he goes all let’s-watch-a-people-relationships-movie on me.
And, yes, I’m less enthused about Oscar-nominated “The Holdovers” than Del, barring Giamatti’s nuanced performance as a lonely man who transforms himself into a whole person to save the day and take a shot at chasing a dream.
Giamatti is one of Hollywood’s finest actors, an unlikely lead me who can execute any role tossed his way. Don’t believe me? Check him out as the demented and depraved and sinister enforcer in 2007’s “Shoot ’Em Up” with Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci.
Giamatti deserves the Best Actor Oscar for portraying Paul Hunham, a likeably dislikeable ancient civilizations prep high school teacher. He carried the film, though Randolph as Lamb and Sessa as Tully do decent enough jobs playing their parts. Combined, the trio captures the details of less than charmed lives with touching or funny moments like smelly Hunham using Glade as underarm deodorant, Lamb’s razor-sharp wit, and Sessa’s mischievousness and fragility.
I’m an audiophile and a sound-phile. My principal gripe with “The Holdovers” is its mopey drove-the-chevy-to-the levy soundtrack. What I wanted to hear was dynamic music coupled to depressing lyrics. Or vice-versa. Why? Because Hunham and, to lesser degree, Lamb and Tully, are complex people. A soundtrack that reflected the opposite between the music and lyrics would have enhanced the story because it, too, would have been complex and, as a result, a more realistic fit for the film. Instead, we get bleak songs set among a gray winter in New England. That’s too much misery.
My other gripe isn’t intended to downgrade the performances by Randolph and Sessa. The problem for the grieving mother and the troubled teenager is that Giamatti as the unhappy, late middle-age man is very, very good. There are brief moments in the film where Lamb and Tully seemed, I don’t know, insincere as a heartbroken mother and a wayward subadult, respectively, because Giamatti executed his role flawlessly from the beginning to the end. Giamatti is so good that even small blemishes in the acting by others stands out.
Without doubt, y’all should see “The Holdovers” despite my reasonable and accurate review. The film ends with the prospect that three wounded people whose lives intertwined for two weeks will be all right.
Look, I concede my grade for “The Holdovers” reflects bias I’m unable to shed. As Del knows, I tend toward a churned stomach watching films about fucked-up people because mankind as a genus and as individual specimens is fucked-up. It goes without saying that I exclude myself from that statement. Who cares about another movie that shows how disturbed y’all are because there are a billion films out there with the same premise?
But, “The Holdovers” is heartwarming, well-directed, well-written, well-acted, and, shit, hopeful. It illustrates the depth and character of its characters. As a recent story about damaged people, “The Holdovers” places second to 2020’s “Nomadland” and that’s saying something.
Del’s grade: A
Mladen’s grade: B
Mladen Rudman is a former newspaper reporter and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and writer.