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(Review) The Holdovers

There aren't many actors who can hold that sad/funny intersection as well as Paul Giamatti.  He can pull you in to his character's depression until it weighs on you like it's your own, and then he can make you laugh on a dime with a simple look or small gesture.  That ability has served him well in his 30+ year career, and his abilities are as strong as ever.  Giamatti once again walks that line with expert finesse in director Alexander Payne's The Holdovers, a sweet and kind comedy about loneliness, which is now available on NBC's Peacock streaming service. 

Set in late December 1970, Giamatti's character, Paul Hunham, is a depressed and resentful history teacher at a New England boarding school called Barton Academy.  Hunman, a former pupil himself at the school, is rigid when it comes to rules and expectations, and it's fair to say he seems to loathe his students and their elite backgrounds.  The teacher is disliked by almost everyone, he has a drinking problem, and on top of everything else, he also suffers from a genetic disorder called "Fish Odor Syndrome."  It's a hard life.

Hunman has been given the assignment of looking after the boarding school kids who can't go home for Christmas break.  One of them is an angry and awkward teen named Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa.)  No one wants to be there, and the situation gets worse when every remaining student besides Tully eventually gets to escape the school. 

It's a bad situation.  Both characters are irritated about being stuck on the campus, and they already didn't care for each other before this forced time together began.  However, as the two-week break continues, Hunham and Tully create an informal family, along with head cook Mary Lamb, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who is processing her own struggles. 

As you might expect, Hunham and Tully gradually begin to connect, as some similarities in their lives are revealed.  Hunman can see his childhood in Tully, and Tully might wonder if Hunman reflects his eventual future.  These ties grow stronger during a "field trip" to Boston, where we learn much more about how these two guys arrived at this moment.  (Side note:  As a Boston resident, it was a treat to see so many familiar locations during this part of the film.  A number of them needed almost no tweaking to look like they'd fit right in at the end of 1970.  There's a timeless quality to this great city.)

Director Payne does a terrific job of immediately setting the tone.  Even the opening credits look like they're from 1970.  What Payne presents is a subdued and remote setting for the wealthy that's in direct contrast to the anger, turmoil, and upheaval happening in the rest of the country at the time.  Loud or quiet, there is loss and pain, particularly when it comes to family, in every direction in The Holdovers.  Paul, Angus, and Mary are all fighting for their own survival in different ways.

Writer David Hemingson does a good job of gradually revealing more and more layers to the three main characters, although Mary doesn't get quite as much attention as the two men.  Regardless of their differences in age, gender, and race, their sorrows and concerns about their lives are all relatable.  The film may be set in 1970, but the emotions are not constrained to that time period.  The overwhelming sense of loneliness throughout the two hour and 13 minute film permeates just about every scene, and it's easy to root for this trio to find their footing.

Paul Giamatti is exceptional in The Holdovers.  The recognition of his work so far during awards season is well-deserved, and here's hoping it continues.  He and Alexander Payne (who also worked together in Sideways) provide a terrific option for people who are tired of watching the latest Marvel movie.



Paul Giamatti The HoldoversPaul Giamatti is a treasure.  (pic via




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