The 1970s aesthetic deployed by Alexander Payne in his charming new dramedy, The Holdovers, isn’t a mere gimmick. From the technicolor palette to the pops of vintage film stock to the fading transitions, the film more than looks the part. But it’s the sweet-natured, simple storytelling and melodramatic character arcs that evoke the period more than anything else. Payne’s latest couldn’t be more different than his unnecessarily bloated sci-fi comedy Downsizing, and fans of the filmmaker will be pleased with this welcome return to form.
It’s also a treat to see Payne reunited with Paul Giamatti, the actor whose grumpy wine connosuier in Sideways catapulted both of their careers. In The Holdovers he plays Paul Hunham, a history professor at Barton Academy, one disliked by the staff and the students mostly due to his arrogance and unwillingness to cater to rich kids and elitist colleagues. When not insulting everyone in sight, in ways many of them aren’t smart enough to notice, Paul can be found drowning his sorrows in Jim Beam. Once again, Giamatti is a grumpy drunk who drinks straight from the bottle.
Paul does have one supporter on campus; grieving cafeteria worker Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son recently died in Vietnam and she’s facing Christmas for the first time with him gone. Then there’s Angus (talented newcomer Dominic Sessa), a lanky, mop-haired smartass who has been abandoned over the holidays by his mother and her new husband while they take a long-delayed honeymoon. With Paul forced to supervise students left behind over Christmas, Mary, and Angus begin to bond in unexpected, meaningful ways.
It would be so easy for this film to lean hard into broad comedic strokes and conflict; setting up a common enemy for the trio to rail against. But there really isn’t any of that here. The villains in this case are loneliness, abandonment, and feelings of being underestimated. Watching the subtle ways these characters begin to move past their grief by connecting through humor, you’d be surprised to learn that Payne didn’t write the script himself, with that honor going to screenwriter David Hemingson.
And while The Holdovers does get off to a slow start, the journey is worthwhile, fulfilling, and quite funny. With both men at opposite ends of the hormonal spectrum, conversations about sex go to some unexpectedly hilarious directions, made funnier by Paul’s one extremely lazy eye and fishy odor. Giamatti and Sessa spend the bulk of the film sharing screen time, trading quips and revealing vulnerable shades to their characters. This is a breakout, charismatic debut for Sessa, one in which he isn’t overshadowed by his more-experienced co-stars. Speaking of which, it’s another great supporting role for Randolph, revealing more about her character with a single line than most can with an entire monologue. She’s been doing this steadily since 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name and hopefully she’ll start getting recognized for it.
The Holdovers is actually something of a gamble. Making a downbeat holiday film that’s sorta sad in a style that doesn’t exactly scream “high-energy” is likely to be a tough sell this Christmas. But there are sweet rewards for those willing to invest, and those who do may find The Holdovers to be one of those movies they make an annual tradition.
Focus Features will release The Holdovers in select theaters on October 27th, with a wider expansion on November 10th.