“I find the world a bitter and complicated place. And it seems to feel the same way about me.” Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti)
Teaching privileged boys at an elite new England prep school called Barton (think for example, Philips Exeter), might be the pinnacle of an academic’s career. But not Paul Hunham in The Holdovers, an elite movie itself of the year.
Paul should be teaching classics at an ivy school, not teaching entitled “vermin,” among the many sobriquets he tosses around about the fortunate young men to experience his brand of grumpy intellectualism and misanthropy. He prepares them for a world that won’t always be coddling and protecting them as their family wealth so naturally does in their early years.
Director Alexander Payne worked with Giamatti in Sideways, so he is prepared to have another winning cynical character who is endearing while distanced by negative temperament from normally positive fellow humans (Paul’s last name, Hunham, suggests a distant connection with the better angels of humanity).
As Paul accepts the assignment to supervise holdovers (exiled to Christmas vacation in the absence of parents or guardians), the number whittles down to just Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, reminiscent of young Timothy Chalamet and Adam Driver), who shares Paul’s dark attitudes and, with the sharp writing of David Hemingson, some witty dialogue— e.g., about Paul Tully says, “I thought all of the Nazis had left for Argentina.”
Although, as in like-minded dramas such as Dead Poet’s Society or Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the principals are destined to be transformed into more humane characters, Holdovers continues, even in its denouement, to accentuate the unsunny side of life for Paul and Tully, whose fortunes are still compromised by cold-hearted parents and administrators. The chilly world, however, is warmed on these lovely, snowbound days, by women, viz., the cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and administrator Lydia (Carrie Preston).
Mary good-naturedly deals with the death of her son, Curtis, a Barton grad who had to join the military because he did not have the resources as other Barton grads of the late ‘60s did to avoid the draft.
Lydia, an attractive middle-aged staff member, holds the promise of a love interest for Paul, only to show how difficult it is for social exiles to enter the romantic mainstream.
The Holdovers is a small gem of a move that will immediately remind buffs about Hal Ashby comedies of the same era like Harold & Maude, where character development is paramount and detachment from the mainstream is required to look at humanity clearly with its foibles and endearments.
The Holdovers is a movie everyone can enjoy with interesting characters who share with us our moments about loneliness peppered with the possibilities of love and happiness.
“Do you think I want to be babysitting you? No. I was praying your mother would pick up the phone, or your father would arrive in a helicopter or a flying saucer....” Paul Hunham
Director: Alexander Payne (Sideways),
Screenplay: David Hemingson (Whiskey Cavalier)
Cast: Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), Dominic Sessa
Run Time: 2h 13
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com