Loneliness, Vietnam-era alienation and a sourpuss Paul Giamatti aren’t, on paper, the things of which cockle-warming yuletide classics are typically made – any more than teams of hi-tech thieves sticking up Japanese corporations. But like Die Hard, Alexander Payne’s wintry story of human connection is an unexpected Christmas gem. It even plays a tiny bit like a 1970-set version of ‘A Christmas Carol’, with Giamatti’s cranky ancient history teacher learning uncomfortable truths about himself on the path to a redemption gives the film a genuine glow.
Payne’s old Sideways star is, as ever, a curmudgeonly delight as Paul Hunham, a universally unpopular member of the teaching staff at New England’s Barton Academy. In fact, his outsider status at the prep school is such that he’s given up trying to charm his students or colleagues, instead embracing his own pain-in-the-arse misanthropy, self-parody (he’s always ready with an Aeneas reference) and self-limiting horizons. ‘You can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?’ chides a colleague.
So when someone is needed to babysit a handful of ‘holdovers’ over the holidays, pupils whose parents have more or less abandoned them during Christmas, it’s Paul who is stuck with the job. Spending the festive period with the gawky, sharp-tongued and inwardly raging Tully (Dominic Sessa), a young man abandoned by his mum and grieving his dad, immediately feels like hell for all concerned.
What follows is a coming-of-age story for Tully and Paul, and a reminder that the sure-to-be-awards-bound Giamatti deserves to be top of the bill far more often, instead of being lumbered with supporting roles in so-so blockbusters like Jungle Cruise and San Andreas. Few other actors could inhabit this rumpled, embittered man and make you root for him so wholeheartedly.
The Holdovers is a triumphant comeback story for Alexander Payne, too. The director bounces back from 2017’s misfiring Downsizing to find his tone – a rare kind of jaded hopefulness – with all his old assurance. He adds another string to his bow here in spotting the talented Sessa. The newcomer is Giamatti’s equal in a volatile odd-couple dynamic that ebbs and flows before the pair finally begin to understand each other.
Only Giamatti could inhabit this embittered man and make you root for him so wholeheartedly
Props, too, to Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Only Murders in the Building), who hits all the film’s major keys as the school’s bubbly but blunt cook, and some of the most touching minor ones, too. The death of her son in Vietnam haunts The Holdovers as much as that of Tully’s dad. All three characters are nursing broken hearts but their path to solidarity is never straightforward or predictable. David Hemingson’s screenplay makes every moment of reluctant connection feel earned.
And I loved that The Holdovers isn’t just set in the 1970s; it feels like it was made then too. From the desaturated cinematography, captured with vintage lenses, to the lived-in production design, you could be watching a Hal Ashby movie (the film’s trailer even has an old-school voiceover). It’s a bittersweet callback to a golden age when there were a whole lot more movies like this one.
In US theaters Nov 10 and UK cinemas January 19, 2024.