Uncork your finest bottle of wine (not Merlot) and rejoice. Because one of cinema’s greatest actor-director duos, Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne — who are to stories about born losers what De Niro and Scorsese are to ones about charismatic criminals — are back with a brand-new groove. In 2004’s Sideways, they untwisted a corkscrewing caper in Wine Country. For The Holdovers, they head to the early ’70s, and a snowbound (fictional) boarding school populated by ‘Barton Boys’, for a yarn that happily proves to possess the same magic. Consistently hilarious, undercut with melancholy and flecked with profundity, it’s a major return to form for Payne after 2017’s shrinking-people drama Downsizing, and nothing less than a brand-new Christmas classic. (Even if, rather inexplicably, it’s out in the UK in late January.)
Like many festive favourites, it has at its core a coal-hearted grouch. Though this guy cuts a significantly less imposing figure than Scrooge or the Grinch. Paul Hunham, classics teacher, is a pathetic creature. He puffs himself up with relentless quotes and factoids from ancient history — “Hence the term ‘punitive’,” concludes one of his insufferable asides — the one area of life that he has mastered. He is adept at dropping the word “Visigoth” into casual conversation, but in every other sense he falls short: a farting, wheezing, mean, hypocritical, weapons-grade humbug-er. Plus, a truly terrible gift-giver. In other words, the worst possible choice of person to look after a group of lonely students forced to haunt their school over the holidays.
It shoots us off on unexpected asides, some funny, some tragic, all engaging.
Handing such a role to Giamatti is like handing the keys of a very expensive lab to Oppenheimer. Except the results are significantly more joyous. He precisely inhabits the wall-eyed, odd-smelling misanthrope, making the early scenes — like the one in which Hunham forces his fed-up charges to jog through snow (“Without sufficient exercise the body devours itself!”), all while standing stock-still and sucking furiously on his pipe — raucously funny. And, as Hunham’s acerbic exterior gradually, inevitably, melts like an icicle, revealing the sad, desperate human beneath, the actor makes him a person with whom you have no choice but to fall in love.
Of course, it’s not just the Giamatti solo show (though we’d watch it). And Payne fills his wintry yarn with a brace of other memorable characters. Newcomer Dominic Sessa is terrific as central student Angus, abandoned by his mother and stepfather to a winter of discontent: a decent guy seething under a surface of pain and anger. And relative unknown Da’Vine Joy Randolph, playing school cook Mary, is magnificent too, stolid and practical — the polar opposite to Hunham’s Cicero-obsessed academic — but mired in grief for her dead son, the lone Barton Boy dispatched to Vietnam on account of his skin colour. This unlikely trio may go on a predictable trajectory — from mutual dislike to acceptance and even flickers of friendship — but the way the story unfolds never feels cheap or formulaic. As with Sideways, it shoots us off on unexpected asides, some funny, some tragic, all engaging.
Much of that has to do with the finely honed vibe: this is a specific place and time, established right from the 1970s-appropriate studio logos and a rating card (“The Holdovers has been passed AA”) that looks like it’s been unearthed from some musty filing cabinet. Period trappings are used sparingly and judiciously — this may be the era of funk and disco, but all that excitement is passing our heroes by: they’re trapped in a drab purgatory, a place where the TV is dull and the grievances are petty. Portraits of former Barton alumni, elegant men in fine garb, stare down at the shambolic goings-on, as if lamenting what the place has come to. Even at the start of the ’70s, it feels like the good times have been and gone.
All of which might make Payne’s film sound depressing. It’s anything but. Though it’s very much an ‘awards’ film, every performance finely calibrated and the craft across-the-board exquisite, it’s just way too much fun to be reduced to that label. In fact, another movie you might end up thinking about is Shrek: another tale of an odoriferous ogre who learns how to care. The Holdovers may not have a donkey, but it’s got as much charm as its main character lacks. Hilarious and heartfelt, it’s a tale to be treasured.