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The Holdovers Review

December 2, 2023 | Posted by Joseph Lee
The Holdovers Image Credit: Focus Features
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The Holdovers Review  

* Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham
* Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully
* Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb
* Carrie Preston as Lydia Crane
* Brady Hepner as Teddy Kountze
* Ian Dolley as Alex Ollerman
* Jim Kaplan as Ye-Joon Park
* Michael Provost as Jason Smith
* Andrew Garman as Dr. Hardy Woodrip
* Naheem Garcia as Danny
* Stephen Thorne as Thomas Tully
* Gillian Vigman as Judy Clotfelter
* Tate Donovan as Stanley Clotfelter
* Darby Lily Lee-Stack as Elise

Story: The Holdovers reunites Sideways’ Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti in a holiday story of three lonely, shipwrecked people at a New England boarding school over winter break in 1970.

It’s easy to say “they don’t make ’em like this anymore”, but they really don’t make movies like The Holdovers anymore. If they do, they certainly don’t give them wide theatrical releases. It just goes to show that studios would rather put out a $200 million movie that bombs than give a chance to something like this, which may not be a blockbuster but is certainly drawing crowds. In its short theatrical window (it’s already on VOD after a month), it continued to bring in more money every time it expanded. My own showing, on the last day it is playing at my local AMC, had a sizeable audience.

There’s just something about The Holdovers that sets it apart from other, milder dramedies you might see these days. It has a real heart to it, with actors doing tremendous jobs portraying engaging characters that find themselves in unfortunate circumstances over the holidays. It’s not an insult to say this movie is familiar and has echoes of ones like it. You may be surprised to learn, if you’re younger, that movies like this used to clean up at the box office. Dead Poets Society, the first movie that comes to mind when it comes to the story, made $235.9 million. Simpler films used to be appointment viewing. Without coming off like a snob, cinema is a little poorer that they’re not anymore.

Perhaps the fact that this is such a throwback in terms of its story is the reason why Alexander Payne made the stylistic choices he did. The Holdovers is made to look like it was a film shot in the decade in which it’s set. It features similar choices that say, Grindhouse did, although its done more subtly here. From the film’s rating being played, the music choices to even the ways scenes are paced and shot, it feels like a 1970s movie that would be at home with Kramer vs. Kramer or Annie Hall. It’s something that’s hard to describe. The aesthetic feels deliberate but it’s not something that overwhelms the movie.

The story follows a group of students in a private school that have nowhere else to go over holiday break. So they are required to stay behind with a curmudgeonly history teacher, who doesn’t care for them any more than they do him. His biggest ‘rivalry’ is with Angus Tully, a young man who is a little too smart for his own good and gives him his fair share of trouble as they spend more time together. The story is familiar, yes, but it’s the way it’s told that makes it compelling.

Before I saw the film, I heard rumblings that Paul Giamatti was on his way to getting an Oscar nomination. I didn’t doubt it, because he’s a great actor who is able to do movies like this or wear a rhino suit in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and never lose any credibility. But after seeing the film, it’s going to be hard not to root for him. In the same way, it’s hard not to root for his character, Mr. Hunham. He’s a know-it-all grouch, but there’s also something there that still makes him likeable. He comes off as well-meaning, even if he’s the first to admit he’s bitter. It makes his relationships with the other characters work so well.

His co-star, newcomer Dominic Sessa, has a bright future ahead of him, just like Tully. A character like Angus could easily come off as whiny or too much of a jerk, similar to Hunham. It’s a testament to both the script and the performance that the audience is able to look past the flaws. It’s how, even though he implies Hunham is a Nazi (the timing of the line and reply was very funny), he can then spend the next scene looking after younger students in his own way.

There is a third co-star here, as the two men are left behind with school cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph). She’s a grieving mother, as her son is the only person in the school’s history to go to war because he couldn’t afford college. Her character helps bring up a different side to the themes of class, which is often mentioned. Many of the students are privileged and have no problem whining about the cooking or talking up their dad’s helicopter. She is able to give perspective, and is kinder about it than Hunham is most of the time. Randolph’s character is more understated, but I don’t think it was done as a disservice to Mary. She’s meant to be that way. It makes the bigger moments have more meaning.

If it seems like I’m praising the acting a lot, that’s because this is an actor’s movie. The three leads do a great job of drawing you in and making you want to follow them during a cold, snowy, New England winter. The script helps, as the dialogue is whip-smart. It’s also funnier than even the trailer would imply, as some of the jokes almost sneak up on you with how effective they are. That humor is balanced with the dramatic elements perfectly, and the dramatic moments feel earned because of how far we’ve followed the characters.

It would be possible to spend many more paragraphs talking up and perhaps overhyping this movie. So instead, let me just say this. The Holdovers is a very well-acted, well-written bit of comfort food. It’s set during the holidays but it’s not about that anymore than it’s about the 70s. It’s about three people learning to live together for a brief period of time because they have to. People are complicated and so that leads to some tension and laughs. When the movie was over, I left the theater with a smile on my face. And that’s the kind of movie you don’t really get anymore, one that might be low-stakes but draws you in and leaves you satisfied anyway. There’s a lot to respect in a well-told story, even if it’s a familiar one.

The final score: review Very Good
The 411
The Holdovers is a throwback not just in style but in content, a simple, well-acted dramedy that could and should score a bunch of Oscar nominations. It was unfortunately given a brief theatrical run, it seems, but is currently on VOD now.

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The Holdovers, Joseph Lee