Less is better, less is best. In the most competitive, richly packed awards season for many years, The Holdovers is already a winner, having been nominated for seven Baftas, including Best Film and Best Director, and taking Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actress for Da’Vine Joy Randolph and “Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy” for Paul Giamatti. Oscars will surely follow.
Yet The Holdovers seems such a modest proposition. It is not a superhero or action film, not a biopic or based on a true story, not in any way high concept. There’s no glamour, no sex, no violence, nothing supernatural, not one special effect. No hot topics are raised. It’s not even remotely contemporary, being assiduously set 50 years ago. It’s another of Alexander Payne’s movies (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) about ageing white men in a muddle.
So what makes it worth seeing? Just a funny, sad story, superbly scripted, acted to perfection.
It’s December 1970, New England. Paul Hunham (the incomparable Giamatti, 20 years on from playing Miles in Sideways) teaches ancient civilisation at Barton Academy, a privileged boys’ boarding school, where he has made himself unpopular all round by being a stickler for standards, with a propensity for sarcastic put-downs, ostentatiously adorned with classical tags. We first meet him marking down end of term papers. “Lazy, vulgar, rancid little philistines,” he mutters to himself.
He has made himself persona non grata by failing a boy whose father happens to have funded a new gym at the school; Princeton has rescinded this boy’s place, a serious matter at this date when the draft loomed for those not in higher education. But Paul is deaf to the headmaster’s protests. “That boy is too dumb to pour piss out of a boot, a genuine troglodyte,” he scoffs. Then pompously proclaims: “We cannot sacrifice our integrity on the altar of their entitlement.”
In revenge, the headmaster orders Paul to stay at the school over Christmas, to look after the boys not going home for the holidays – the holdovers. At first there are five such laggards but a wealthy parent whisks four of them off by helicopter for a skiing holiday. That leaves just Paul, one highly disaffected boy, Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa, 19 at the time of filming, is rivetingly good) and the black school cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) stranded in the vast school buildings to make the best of this festive season that always leaves those without family so sorely exposed.
Mary’s only son Curtis distinguished himself on a scholarship at Barton but, unable to afford university fees, he enlisted and was killed in Vietnam. In her grief, she decides she might as well spend Christmas at the school. “This is the last place my baby and I were together – not including the bus station.” Randolph gives Mary enormous presence, without any sentimental softening. When Paul, in his inept way, tries to commiserate with her, saying Curtis was an insightful student, she retorts: “He hated you – he said you were an asshole.” To his credit, Paul accepts this – “Like I said… insightful” – one of the first indications that he has more self-awareness than at first appears.
Paul seems a lost cause, a dweeb, a doofus, a schlub. He drinks like a fish, and he smells like one too, especially towards the end of the day. He has a lazy eye, so nobody knows where to look. He wears atrociously saggy corduroy suits and a daft tweed hat. His attempts at running or throwing a ball are hopeless, his whole view of life spavined. It’s “like a hen-house ladder, shitty and short”, he announces.
His very learning reinforces his isolation. When offered a kiss under the mistletoe, he kills the moment by knowledgeably observing that Aeneas carried mistletoe with him when he descended into Hades. His idea of a suitable Christmas present for Mary and Angus, miserable as they are, is a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius each. Later, it emerges (wonderful, this) he has a whole box full of them to give away.
“I love history, I love Barton. Barton is my life,” he says. “I don’t know what I would do without Barton.” Yet this total loser gives up everything to help the troubled Angus, even turning against his own creed. “In real life, your history does not have to decide your whole life,” Paul tells him, when he most needs to hear it.
It is the genius of Paul Giamatti to make us, over the course of this great movie, not just re-evaluate and learn to respect this mess of a man but actually, despite the hauteur, the pong, the slumpy body, the pouchy face and the wandering eye, to love him. That’s the whole triumph of The Holdovers – and the performances of Randolph and Sessa (like a young Adam Driver) miraculously rise to that level too.
It’s the part Giamatti, the son of a Yale president, was born to play, as he suggested in his gracious Golden Globes acceptance speech, saying his whole family have been teachers for generations. “Teachers are good people. We’ve got to respect them. They do a good thing. It’s a tough job. So this is for teachers.” Roll on that Oscar.
“The Holdovers” is in cinemas now.
[See also: The genius of The Bear]