The Holdovers

The Holdovers

The Holdovers
Genre: Dramedy
Director: Alexander Payne
Release Year: 2023
Runtime: 2h 13min

It’s clear Alexander Payne was going for something here. Meaning that the context of The Holdovers is referentially filmic on purpose. It is shot and paced and generally presented in a way that makes you think you’re watching a film from the 1970s about a boarding school in the 1970s. So, if you were to be shown the film without any context — and you had no idea who Paul Giamatti is — Payne wanted you to feel as if you were viewing a lost treasure that was actually produced and filmed in 1971. A time when — if you probably ask a bunch of filmmakers – movies were cool. I guess? At some level the whole adding a manufactured patina to a brand new thing is a bit of a gimmick, but I get the desire to try something artsy for film’s sake. I watched a bunch of stuff in college where filmmakers poured paint on the film or burned the edges with lighters or did other dumb shit to film to make “art,” so I’m not mad at Payne’s attempt to challenge himself and his team to pull this off.

Putting all the technical stuff aside, what does The Holdovers bring as a narrative experience? I think, being true to the era, there is a lot of talking. The whole script and vibe is very play-like. This is due in large part to the fact a lot of scenes are essentially two characters talking to one another in a room. Dialogues, I think the pros call them. Or, in some cases, trialogues. Which probably isn’t a thing, but it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve made up a word on this site. The point is, the plot does its best to strip away the size of the cast and focus on the core three characters held over Christmas vacation at this isolated New England boarding school called Barton Academy. Angus (Dominic Sessa), the sole remaining student unable to go home due to some familial strife. Paul Hunham (Giamatti), the teacher charged with chaperoning the held over students, whose numbers dwindle to one after some are whisked away by a wealthy student’s parents. And Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s cook and cafeteria manager who seemingly lives on campus and is around to cook for the heldover students. The script pares things down to these three so that we can see how these three disparate people with different lives and different sadnesses relate to one another and the world around them.

Why do I say it feels like a stage play? Well, the characters are pretty obviously drawn. Angus has basically been abandoned at this school by his newly married mother. Who, rather than taking him on a fancy holiday to the Caribbean, has decided to honeymoon with her new husband. Sad home life, no doubt. Paul is clearly a sad and generally bitter man. A former scholarship student at the school, he has entrenched himself as Barton’s longest serving, most disliked classics teacher. Between his bitterness of being surrounded by privileged boys he clearly feels don’t deserve the Ivy league lives they’ll move onto, and his multitude of socially unacceptable physical characteristics, he’s a sad little man who can only wield power and control in his classroom. And Mary, whose son graduated from Barton — presumably because he was the son of an employee — and became one of the only Barton victims of the Vietnam War because, it is inferred, he is black. While, of course, the other students are most definitely not. So there you go. Three, sad lonely people all thrown together to learn from one another. To learn empathy, sympathy and humility. Because you never really know a person until you know their story. And then, over the span of two hours, we’re basically told their stories in dialogues. Like a play.

I’m having trouble pinpointing exact examples, but the beats of this movie feel very familiar. The young student at odds and/or adversarial with the older character because of circumstance, who then goes on a road trip and learns more about this character — because a road trip gets everyone out of their comfort zone and exposes everyone foibles — and softens the relationship, resulting in an admiration that previously didn’t exist. Rain Man? Not quite. Mmm, Midnight Run. Not at all. Planes, Trains & Automobiles. I don’t know, but you get the idea. This unsanctioned road trip to Boston has some pretty coincidental contrivances to move the story forward, but they’re revealing, I guess. For instance, Paul running into an old Harvard colleague on the streets. A colleague who just so happens to be the lynchpin to his past indiscretions and failures. That is… an insane coincidence. But one that just so happens to lead to a breakthrough with his student and travelmate, Angus. Again, in a way that feels particularly play-ish. Plays, where you view the treatment as more literary and less literal. Because if this type of thing happened in any other film, your eyes would roll so far back in your head that you could see yesterday. But, for whatever reason, you just kind of accept it as you would in the contrived world of a stage play (because, after all, we sit in a theater looking at a boxed-in stage and what is so obviously a set and are inherently asked to suspend disbelief) and focus on the character development rather than the plotting backbends.

And in terms of that whole thing, well. It wasn’t subtle. The characters are pretty broadly drawn. They give the cantankerous prof, Paul, any number of off-putting ailments. He has a wonky eye and some sort of disorder that makes him smell like fish. He’s a poor kid who went to a rich kid school because he was smart and always had a chip on his shoulder. He’s a “I’m going to hurt you before you hurt me” guy. It’s super-obvious. And I think he’s supposed to be the more “complicated” of our trio. I mean Giamatti gives an entertaining performance, but I’ve seen him do it before. And Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s cook character amounts to a grieving mom. And that’s about where it stops. She’s good in the role, but she isn’t given a whole lot to do other than drink, look sad and act as a buffer between our two white dude actors. Anyhow, I get what Payne was going for here. I’ve seen 70s movies. The pacing isn’t my thing, generally. And while this movie at least hired an editor who didn’t fall asleep at the board, there is definitely an intentional quietness about things. An intentional literary bent. But, ultimately, the execution doesn’t live up to the promise. It’s just not that smart. Or as smart as it wants to be. Style over substance. And an ending that made me wonder if I even got the parts I thought I got.