‘The Holdovers’ Review: Alexander Payne’s ’70s-Set Christmastime Movie Is Familiar and Cozily Beautiful

"The Holdovers"

It’s the holiday season in Alexander Payne’s sweet, good-looking yet occasionally schmaltzy throwback “The Holdovers” and Paul Giamatti’s grumpy Paul Hunham has stolen the Christmas of 1970. Well, not quite, as his character—an Ancient History teacher at the fictional New England school Barton Academy—isn’t exactly the Grinch despite being severely disliked by his students and fellow educators alike.

Sure, he gives stingy grades like F+, is uncompromisingly prickly and calls his students things like “snarling Visigoths” in his amusingly embellished figure of speech full of insults and outdated language—one of the many low-key delights of David Hemingson’s script. But it isn’t exactly his doing that several kids who can’t go home for the holidays are held over at the academy under his supervision.

This unwelcome winter break gig is a punishment of sorts for Hunham—if you fail the wrong kid whose last name decorates the gymnasium at such a wealth-driven institution of privileged boys and entitled parents, there are consequences. And Hunham knows it well too, as we learn later, having butted heads against one of those moneyed brats he detests back when he was a student at Harvard.

Still, he can’t help but rightfully agitate the rich, earning himself a penalty that unites Hunham with his class’s brilliant problem pupil, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, making his film debut). Apart from the school’s grieving cook Mary Lamb, played by a stirring Da’Vine Joy Randolph (easily the best thing about the movie), Angus is the only student left on campus once the rest of the holdovers depart, thanks to a parent’s charitable act.

Reuniting with Payne nearly two decades after the splendid wine country road-trip “Sideways,” Giamatti plays the irritable Hunham with notes akin to a little bit of Miles (his “Sideways” misanthrope) and a little bit of Colonel Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino in “The Scent of a Woman.” That latter film is especially crucial to mention as Payne’s “The Holdovers” feels like a warm and loving nod to an era in the ‘80s and ‘90s where inspirational academia-themed movies like “Dead Poets Society” and “With Honors” were numerous and most welcome.

While one could be tempted to be cynical about the formulaic and corny nature of this retired brand of film, most of us can also fondly recall at least one from whatever era that we came of age that meant a great deal to our younger selves.

In a way, Payne gifts today’s young adults with their own “inspiring teacher” film with “The Holdovers,” his first movie in six years after the shaky “Downsizing,” marked by a signature keenness of observing idiosyncratic everyday people in bittersweet situations. Its throwback nature is echoed in the style of the filmmaking, too. True to its period, Payne’s film—cozily shot by cinematographer Eigil Bryld—has an earthy and grainy ‘70s quality, like it was recently discovered in a safe not opened since the year of “Harold and Maude.”

It’s a pleasantly inviting picture in that sense (one that earns its vintage film logos at the start), like a plush sweater you might slip into on a cold night before pouring yourself a hot cup of cocoa or a glass of bourbon. It’s all moodily warm interiors and dreamily white, nostalgic New England outdoors, a visual palette that makes the whole production look like a melancholic snow globe one would want to live inside.

The story itself, about three broken misfits lifting each other up, is as predictable as they come, but wistful and heartwarming and without a shred of cynicism despite its cynical personalities. All rough and tough on the outside, both Mr. Hunham and Mr. Tully—theirs is the kind of affluent and cordial school that necessitates the use of Mr.—gradually soften their edges shaped by shades of depression and misfortune, understanding each other as human beings. A heavy-handed and over-gesturing performer at first, Sessa settles into his role almost in real time, relaxing into his character’s beats as the story progresses, revealing the devastating nature of his familial problems.

Mary receives the film’s most moving arc. Having lost her son, a graduate of the very school she works at, to the Vietnam war, she’s a quietly suffering woman on the inside, always a little headstrong, but a little broken, too. As grief takes its toll on her, Randolph brilliantly adapts to the subtle changes in her character’s visceral world, poignantly reflecting the haunting on-and-off grip grief has on human beings. To his credit, Hemingson writes her with specificity and enough breathing room—thankfully, she is not a wise-cracking third-wheel to the two men’s storylines. In “The Holdovers,” she is a holdover herself, with demons of her own to battle against.

There is often a lovely rhythm amid these characters for whom it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. There are stolen moments across TV rooms, restaurants, diners, a last-minute holiday party, a trip to Boston and a familial dinner at the school’s dining hall, under the shadow of a hilariously sad and crooked Christmas tree as oddball as the trio it’s supposed to comfort.

The film is also filled with memorable side characters, the loveliest of them played by Carrie Preston as a sunshiny admin. Although it might promptly be added to your holiday movie rotation as a new staple, “The Holdovers” doesn’t exactly feel like a new classic—it feels too familiar for that. Still, it does something tried-and-true so well and affectionally.

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