Vague Visages’ The Holdovers review contains minor spoilers. Alexander Payne’s 2023 movie features Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa and Da’Vine Joy Randolph. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
If there’s something that was nearly guaranteed to happen in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, it was a road trip. The film’s protagonists are often in a crisis between being stuck perpetually in mundane routines and yearning to break free into the open world. In About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004) and Nebraska (2013), the central characters are all people who have strictly regimented themselves to a certain way of thinking and being. What begins to change them? Being on the open road. In The Holdovers, Payne’s road trip is much shorter, but when his two main characters — teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) and pupil Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) — get in a car, they learn something about each other and themselves.
The Holdovers is a classic Hollywood story. Payne allows his direction to be completely at the mercy of the script, and that works for better and for worse. The Holdovers is only one of two Payne films that wasn’t actually written by him (the other is Nebraska), as it comes from David Hemingson, who has exclusively worked as a television writer. This makes perfect sense because The Holdovers is written in the same structural narrative pattern as many TV dramas. It uses a lot of basic motifs during the first half, as the characters change and fall perfectly into place by the second half — a frustratingly reductive cinematic style. Is The Holdovers emotionally effective? Sure, but that’s practically against the audience’s will because the story is engineered to be that way. This approach, which spells out its emotions instead of letting the actors do the work, is especially surprising for a film starring Paul Giamatti.
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Giamatti’s role as Paul is an ideal casting situation. It’s comparable to Robin Williams’ performance in Dead Poet’s Society (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997), both in terms of the actors’ strengths and the upside potential for a generation of moviegoers. Giamatti offers wry wit, cheeky self-satisfaction and occasional unrelenting anger, all mixed with a few shots of self-loathing. From moment one, his character makes incendiary comments about teenage students, calling them “troglodytes” and “Philistines.” He even dumbs down the insults to “morons” once in a while, so everyone else — clearly not as esteemed as an academic — can understand what he means. Paul is an older and more self-aware version of Miles Raymond in Sideways — a man whose self-serving arrogance masks a severe level of insecurity when it comes to any sort of real human connection.
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Angus is also arrogant and pompous in The Holdovers, eager to impress through semantics and railing against authority figures, particularly his stepdad, mom and, of course, Paul. “You know everyone in class hates you right?” he says without hesitation to Giamatti’s character, who gives a defeated, knowing look. They are both underachievers and also self-loathers, which inherently ties them in relatability that begins to blossom in The Holdovers. In the middle of the two is Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook who grieves the loss of her son in the Vietnam War. The actress speaks with an equal amount of warmth and cutting honesty that keeps her two arrogant school companions in check. Randolph’s performance is quiet and contemplative with a strong sense of self-assurance in small gestures — Mary’s sarcastic glances, the way she drags on a cigarette, the way the character admonishes Reginald with a “what the hell is wrong with you?”
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The Holdovers’ difficult character dynamics ultimately fall into all the right places. From beginning to end, Payne’s protagonists often remain static, but their perspectives shift dramatically. The potency of the filmmaker’s movies comes in the form of reckoning with a sense of disappointment, but The Holdovers tries a little too hard to swerve melancholic moments into a hokey optimism, as it’s indebted to a screenwriters’ seminar-style narrative.
Soham Gadre (@SohamGadre) is a writer/filmmaker based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to publications such as Bustle, Frameland and Film Inquiry. Soham is currently in production for his first short film. All of his film and writing work can be found at extrasensoryfilms.com.
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