Winter is coming. At an Exeter-esque New England prep school circa the 1970s, students ready themselves for Christmas break. All but a handful of Barton students anticipate time with family, away from the academic demands of their coursework and the prying eyes of their hawkish professors. A small collection of eponymous “holdovers” are left behind, stranded at the snow-bound school for various reasons, forsaken under the tyrannical cross-eye of Dr. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti). Amongst the abandoned is resident reprobate Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a whip-smart smart-ass who’s a bit of a loner and has a troubled home life. There to ensure the collection is fed during their holiday stint is cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who recently lost her son, a recent Barton graduate, in the Vietnam War. Director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Nebraska), working from a fantastic script from long-time TV writer David Hemingson, finds every avenue to make these characters collide, collude, and refract one another in a dizzying display of heart, humanity, and humor.

The Holdovers is amongst the celebrated director’s best work, continuing his tradition of bringing to life caustic characters who belly great depth and poke at the soul of contemporary American values. Following the mixed reviews of Downsizing, an interesting satirical experiment that doesn’t quite pull off the W, Payne entered a full-blown career slump that saw his departure from various projects, including 2022’s The Menu and the HBO miniseries Landscapers  starring Olivia Colman and David Thewlis. The Holdovers could then rightfully be called a return to form, a career resurgence for one of America’s greatest filmmakers, but that would almost undermine the message of the film. 

At its core, The Holdovers is about broken people. Professor Hunham, imbued with a pariah’s acid and a scholar’s wit by Giamatti, is a man hated by all who know him. His students despise him. His peers outright reject him. He’s bitter and cruel and he smells like fish most days. Only those amongst the school’s lowest rungs (janitors, lunch ladies, and assistants) can find pity for the conceited professor. At one point in the film, Hunham intones that the world only sees him as bitter and hard because he finds the world itself bitter and hard. The 17-year old Angus is not a far cry from this worldview. Dumped at Barton at the last minute by his distant mother, Angus masks his sorrow with rebellion and sarcasm. His tension with Hunham informs the early parts of the film but their eventual ability to see each other is what gives it so much soul.

Payne wisely introduces us to the world of Barton boys and their strict environs, trapping us within their little world before stretching the frame outward. As the setting opens up, so do the characters, expanding from stereotypes into richly-drawn, deeply-felt individuals. Payne’s greatest works allow his characters to wallow in cynicism without ever allowing his film’s to become cynical themselves, look no further than Bruce Dern’s career-defining work in Nebraska for further evidence, and The Holdovers is perhaps his most plainly crowdpleasing in that regard. It’s equally caustic and sharp and heartbreaking and clever, all fastened by terrific performances and tons of heart. 

Giamatti, one of the true great actors of his generation, has rarely been better than he is here. He manages to be a narcissistic brute and an unexpected underdog, at times within the same scene. Casting him as a pedantic, flop-sweaty ancient histories professor always ready to launch into a latin proverb would be inspired if Payne didn’t so often turn to Giamatti. Nevertheless, it’s amongst the great performances of 2023 and should certainly be remembered when awards season rolls around. So too are newcomer Sessa and actress-singer Randolph superb additions to the cast, each bringing a balance of gravity and levity that helps keep The bittersweet Holdovers so effortlessly buoyant.

CONCLUSION: A testament to the simple power of an outstanding script, strong direction, and standout performances, ‘The Holdover’’s is a delightfully bittersweet return to form for Alexander Payne. Paul Giamatti is as good as ever in one of 2023’s best films.


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The post Bittersweet Symphony ‘THE HOLDOVERS’ Waxes on Holiday Loneliness  appeared first on Silver Screen Riot.

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