After stumbling with Downsizing, Alexander Payne bounces back with a gentle & witty comedy-drama.
The artist Dmitry Samarov one said to me that the ratio of good to bad late periods in an artist’s life was depressing to consider. For every Sir Edward William Elgar there was an Eric Clapton (my example, not his), and that it was rare to see someone sharpen as they aged. Now, I like Dmitry and certainly respect his opinion, but I can’t help but feel that when film overtook painting as the dominant artwork that people engage with, the ratio shifted towards bizarre experimentation and welcome self-reflection as much as dull self reflection.
Take for instance 62 year old Alexander Payne, who, after the biggest disaster of his career (2017’s confused parable Downsizing), has started his fourth decade as a director by leaning hard back into what he knew (and what the royal “we” enjoyed) and rediscovered himself with The Holdovers, a movie no one can seem to stop comparing to Hal Ashby. No mean feat, of course, but even that sells its virtues short. This is no mere homage, no mere return to form, this is the movie that Payne’s been hoping to make since his 90s heyday, a film that earns both its jaundiced gaze and its catharsis.
The Vietnam war is raging, the public is losing confidence in its elected officials, and Barton Academy is about to start its winter break before 1970 turns into 1971. The prestigious boarding school is the kind of place that turns the children of diplomats into diplomats, or anyway, loves taking credit for the inevitability. This is a bone of contention between the school board and hot-tempered professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), who teaches ancient civilizations. He flunked a senator’s kid and no one has let him forget it. His career hanging by a thread, the worst of the school’s responsibilities fall to him first, and that includes holdover duty. That means he has to be the perpetual chaperone for the kids whose parents can’t for whatever reason bring them home for the holidays.
Among the five unlucky kids is closet brainiac Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who doesn’t fit in with his needlessly cruel classmates, who view academics as a chore and people like Hunham as torturers standing in their way. Fittingly, Angus’s roommates are rescued by an eleventh hour ski trip and he’s left to spend Christmas with Hunham and school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who just lost her son to the Vietnam Conflict. These three just might have things to teach other, don’t you think?
The premise is, like a lot of Payne’s work, deliberately simplistic, because he has more interest in the details of behavior. Hunham and Angus are the kinds of character Payne relishes in fleshing out, though he’s no slouch at first impressions either. Sessa (who bears a striking resemblance to a young Billy Crudup) imbues Angus with just the right attitude of sarcastic nihilism, trying to never seem as though he cares as much as he does. He has moments where his facade slips, but Payne also makes sure to paint a portrait of someone who directs their angst outward, having gotten used to not really sitting with the disappointing turns their life has taken.
And life, as we learn, has been about as hard on a rich kid as it can be without having taken a limb or killing him, making him the perfect counterpoint to Mary’s deceased son. He has to acknowledge that he was able to skate through most of his life without giving back whenever he looks at her, though, realistically, Payne doesn’t let him exit the picture seeming like he might have changed 100% for the better. The particular note of uncertainty on which The Holdovers ends, with Hunham and Angus having clearly affected each other during their forced time together, doesn’t account for the fact that these are hard-headed men at crossroads of their lives. Can a guy like Hunham actually change?
Giamatti is clearly thrilled to be in Payne’s hands again for the first time since 2004’s Sideways, salivating over mean-spirited turns of phrase and curt interaction, knowing he was given this part because no one was going to do it better. Hunham’s skin is a thick and heavy one to step inside, from the diseases he ensures we in the audience are wondering about from an olfactory perspective, to a quite convincing lazy eye, to the suits and sweaters he’s plainly worn for the last decade or more. The film opens with a quick roll call of the kind of people who teach at Barton (shout out to Gerald Peary, the Boston film critic and friend who makes a two second appearance in that very shot) and you know that Paul is both of them and not.
[T]his is the movie that Payne’s been hoping to make since his 90s heyday, a film that earns both its jaundiced gaze and its catharsis.
They’re carved into their chairs at the faculty table and at the head of their classrooms and Paul Hunham would like to be too, but there’s something in him that still makes him a wild card. His particular acidity with colleague and students alike is not the kind of thing that makes for a tenure candidate. Indeed, without Mary’s intervention, you can picture he and Angus never getting as close to a reconciliation as they do. And of course Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as the secret heart of the film, has to do a lot in fewer scenes and ably performs. You buy her as the kind of woman you’d run into on the street in 1971 more than anyone else in the very qualified cast. Her meltdowns and exhales alike grab you and don’t let go until the edit has taken us away. Everyone here is up to the task of making this movie more than the charming comedy it appears to be in its barest outline.
Payne of course was lucky to have actors of this caliber for his return to form, but this is the kind of movie only a guy looking to “go home,” so to speak, could have made. Gone are regular collaborators writer Jim Taylor and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. Gone is the Omaha setting that so characterizes his work and his sensibility. And gone is the easiness of metaphor or high emotional stakes that let us know right away what kind of movie we’ll be watching. Indeed he captures the boarding school (and icy Boston itself) with such specificity that it gets caught between nostalgia and alienation. You know these rooms very well, the sound of empty school chapels and pianos echoing dumbly off of wooden pews, just as well that you know these aren’t exactly welcoming sights and sounds, because they mean you’re back in school.
Situating the film between Angus’s eagerness to leave and Hunham’s helplessness before his own fate within these walls means we too are left to deal with our reactions to Barton waxing and waning as the story goes from tragic to comic and back again. There’s a feeling of confederacy that arises in places like this, whether we want to be here or not, and Payne has captured this in a way I wish was more frequent in American movies. I was reminded not of Hal Ashby (whose work’s relative chilliness stands in stark contrast to The Holdovers‘ warmth) but of Lindsay Anderson and his best work, 1968’s If…., on some days my favorite film of all time.
You do and don’t wish to share this space, these hard conversations, these forbidden bonding sessions, because they mean that life is hard, and when they’re over, it’s bound to get harder. Barton, after all, didn’t protect Mary’s son from dying in a war. The safety of the place, among its other promised characteristics, was always a lie. And yet all I can think about is how desperately I want to watch this movie, Payne’s best, again. Incidentally, this was the last movie I saw before leaving Boston, and I could think of no more beautiful tribute to this city than this movie, its cozy bitterness, and its difficult truths.
The Holdovers is now playing in theaters.