Film

The Holdovers review – a film of well-turned wit and emotional warmth

Alexander Payne's latest is an odd trio comedy that harks back to the New Hollywood movement of the early '70s

(l-r) Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully, Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in The Holdovers

(l-r) Dominic Sessa as Angus Tully, Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb in The Holdovers Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 FOCUS FEATURES LLC

Of the five or six movies Nicolas Cage made last year, only one role seemed to genuinely challenge him. In the spiky modern satire Dream Scenario, he played a paunchy, balding professor whose lofty estimation of his own intelligence was only matched by some equally towering emotional insecurities. It is an intriguing film, and Cage consciously tamped down his volcanic acting style to match his drab academic outfits. But I can’t have been the only one watching who was thinking: man, Paul Giamatti would have absolutely nailed this part. 

Ever since the merlot-mocking Sideways in 2004, Giamatti has been the go-to guy for egotistical but self-sabotaging middle-aged messes. So it is pleasing that in the new retro dramedy The Holdovers – which reunites him with Sideways director Alexander Payne – Giamatti gets to do what he does best. He plays Paul Hunham, a paunchy, balding professor whose lofty estimation of his own intelligence is only matched by some equally towering emotional insecurities.  

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The year is 1970 and Hunham is a happily cloistered, pipe-smoking scholar of ancient history at Barton Academy, an exclusive boys boarding school in leafy New England. He uses his knowledge of Pericles as a bludgeon to keep his gawky young charges in line. In return, they offer acidic classroom backchat and mock Hunham’s squint in private. (He has a glass eye… but which one is it?) 

As a teacher, Hunham seems less interested in shaping young minds than simply knocking his overprivileged charges down a peg or two. His exasperation is not entirely unfounded. As he distributes marked exam papers with deeply withering grades, a fleeting visual gag shows that one pupil required a second attempt to spell their own name correctly. 

The Holdovers is not a tale of an inspirational educator like Dead Poet’s Society. If anything, it’s more like The Breakfast Club or even The Shining. Hunham is strong-armed into staying at the school over the festive period to look after the boys who are unable to go home. With the rest of the academy mothballed, Hunham and his charges bunk in the infirmary. Long-serving kitchen head Mrs Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, previously wonderful as the sarcastic detective in Only Murders in the Building) also stays on to cook for them. 

Like Hunham, Mrs Lamb has a complex relationship with Barton; her employment meant her son – recently killed in Vietnam – was educated there. The older pair seem content to make the best of their Christmas confinement, topping up mugs with Canadian Club while zoning out in front of the telly. But their main charge Angus Tully (talented newcomer Dominic Sessa) is furious about being abandoned while his mother honeymoons with a rich new partner. Chafing at his incarceration, this fiercely smart teen begins acting out.  

How this trio rub along together is the meat of Payne’s film, which gradually expands beyond the grounds of the school to take in field trips to the local town and even an eventful jaunt to Boston. The fraught push-pull between the book-smart teacher and the smart-mouth teen is mirrored in their amusing physical disparity; the roly-poly Hunham wrapped up in a duffel coat alongside Angus the sulky beanpole. (For her part, Mrs Lamb is too mature and self-aware to get into too many scrapes.) 

Perhaps the teacher and pupil have more in common than they think. They lie to help each other out, and those shared lies become tentative stepping stones towards something more truthful. It helps that despite the stately collegiate setting the odd couple have an uncanny knack for getting into completely farcical situations and then completely failing to de-escalate them. 

As well as being set in 1970, The Holdovers goes to great lengths to evoke the cinematography of that era. The film stock looks authentically grainy and there are leisurely screen wipe transitions and unfashionable slow zooms. For some, this might be an affectation too far. It certainly stokes feelings of nostalgic warmth, and perhaps bodes well for its Oscar chances when nominations are announced next week [23 January]. 

If you were grading as harshly as Hunham, you could also argue that a true product of 1970s cinema might not wrap things up quite as neatly as The Holdovers does. But it is a film of well-turned wit and emotional warmth with a distinct authorial voice. Sometimes that’s enough. 

Graeme Virtue is a film and TV critic. The Holdovers is in cinemas from 19 January .

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