“You can’t even dream a whole dream, can you?” Paul Hunham accepts this without protest. The schoolteacher has just admitted to a long-standing ambition to finish a monograph he once started. Even fantasy can't expand this into a full book.
How well this rebuke applies not just to Paul Hunham but to Paul Giamatti. The actor has a few achievers in his filmography (John Adams in the HBO miniseries) and a few cheerful helpers (his boxing coach in Cinderella Man). But it’s mostly been a long line of grumblers, self-flagellators and misanthropes, his career-making turn as the caustic oenophile in Sideways, his sad-sack portrayal of underground comics legend Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, the perennially trumped US Attorney in the TV series Billions. All those dreams denied, deferred, drained of their vitality—Giamatti, 56, is one of the most engrossing essayers of American failure.
Paul teaches history at Barton, an elite New England boarding school. Though he likes the subject, he has contempt for his pampered charges and his servile colleagues. The film opens in the run up to Christmas, 1970, with students readying to leave for the holidays. All except a group of five—the holdovers of the title—who, for various reasons, can’t be with their families that year. Paul, to his disgust, is tasked with watching over them, with the help of the school cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who’s recently lost her son in Vietnam.
The most interesting of the holdovers is Angus Tully, whose mother has gone on vacation with her new husband. He’s a smart kid with a big mouth, clearly more evolved than the garden-variety rich brats that populate the school. Soon, he’s the only one left, the other students making a grateful exit by helicopter (Angus’ mom isn’t reachable, so he doesn’t have permission). As the disappointed Angus acts out, he clashes with the unbending professor. It culminates in a sequence where Angus, with little to lose, runs through the empty school building, followed by a wheezing Paul, who even here can’t shake his professorial turn of phrase (“You are careening towards detention”; “Do not cross the Rubicon”).
Fun as it is to watch Sessa make Giamatti puff up with frustration, The Holdovers is after something more resonant. After Angus injures himself, a worried Paul takes him to the hospital to get patched up. They stop at a diner on the way back, where Angus—a magnet for trouble—runs afoul of two locals, one with a hook for a hand (he looks like Elliot Gould in M.A.S.H—the Korean war comedy released that year). Later, when Angus complains that Paul took their side, the teacher asks, rhetorically, if anyone he knows has had their limbs blown off in Vietnam. He says it gently, though, perhaps grateful that the boy bailed him out at the hospital by not contacting his family and getting him fired.
Right from the first image—a vintage certification card—The Holdovers harks back to an older era of American film. Alexander Payne’s work has always contained traces of New Hollywood, but the '70s setting makes the lineage clearer. Hal Ashby in particular informs the unsentimental comic tone; Cat Stevens on the soundtrack is likely Payne’s nod to the 1971 film Harold and Maude. It helps that Giamatti has an innate ability to seem at ease in any era, and newcomer Sessa somehow has an Altman face, a Warhol face and a Forman face.
The Holdovers is an improvement on that other film about a troubled boy at an elite school helped by a crusty old man. Scent of a Woman has an inexplicable reputation as a classic and Al Pacino’s faintly ridiculous Oscar-winning performance. I was reminded of Pacino’s scornful ‘Baird man’ each time someone said ‘Barton man’ in The Holdovers. Payne’s film clears Martin Brest’s 1992 one easily: it’s funnier, better written and performed, and no one’s forcing out tears for a blind colonel.
The film’s emotional anchor is Mary—though she herself might feel adrift in her sorrow. She doesn’t suffer fools, but even at her most exasperated she’s able to remember that Angus is a scared kid who deserves their sympathy (“Don’t fuck it up for the little asshole,” she scolds Paul). Randolph is a pleasure to watch as someone who’s barely keeping it together for herself (she drinks through much of the film), yet manages to keep the group together.
Paul Hunham is the sort of role that comes the way of a lucky few actors after decades of hard work. It’s as if the wine obsessive from Sideways realized, like Noriko in Tokyo Story, that life is disappointing, and gave up raging. But Payne’s older too, and this time after acceptance there’s kindness and redemption.