At Barton Academy, the fictional all-male enclave of director Alexander Payne’s intriguing gray-sky comedy “The Holdovers,” there are professors who are stuffy, authoritarian, and demanding — and then there’s Paul Hunham, an ancient civilizations expert with a subspecialty in student studies. humiliation.
According to Hunham, the boys with the hair (it was 1970, no one thought much of barbers then) and their attitudes were either “idiots”, “rude” or worse. This loner, often drunk at noon and dyspeptic by nature, drew the final straw this school year and asked to spend winter break babysitting “Christmas orphans” who were stuck in Barton for one reason or another.
Among this year’s laggards is Hunham’s only decent pupil, the skinny and miserable Angus. Smart kid. But he is arrogant. Meaning: Insecure and suffering. How this student, this instructor, and Mary, the school’s assistant cook, spend several cold scenes of winter together forms the story of “The Holdovers.” As for why it’s both funny and touching, Payne has had a few fallow years since “The Descendants” (2011), but here he reunites with Paul Giamatti, who co-starred in Payne’s “Sideways” (2004). ). To put it mildly, they work pretty well together.
Immediately, the 1970s hit us with playful directness. The first is the lettering and design of the fictional Focus Properties logo from the 1970s. What follows is the old MPAA “R” rating classification on screen, along with analog aural pops and scratches, a step away from Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse.” Then, the opening credits fade away, recalling many films of the period: “Harold and Maude,” “Brewster McCloud,” “The Paper Chase” and hundreds of others.
Screenwriter David Hemingson’s conception of Hunham places Giamatti’s character in general proximity to Professor Kingsfield, the formidable foe played by Oscar winner John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” Hunham then warms up but Kingsfield never did. But the first few scenes, and a frustrating portion of the subsequent ones, settle for middling jokes and insults at best.
Eventually the script eases into it and opens up to different possibilities and the idea that everyone is in some sort of emotional crisis. The hard-boiled, all-seeing cook, played with powerful sadness by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, had a son who graduated from Barton, went to Vietnam, and didn’t survive. It’s Mary who periodically reminds Hunham that it’s Christmas and that he shouldn’t be his usual cavalier self in the face of a group of unhappy schoolboys.
Before long, all the boys except Angus are put off this holiday for a while. At this point, “The Holdovers” becomes a road trip for an unlikely trio. It’s a time for melancholic family affairs, awkward reunions, stray reminders (when Hunham runs into a former classmate) of hidden disappointments, and an opportunity to gratefully acknowledge each other’s problems. Angus is played by welcoming and impressive newcomer Dominic Sessa; I have rarely seen more natural, convincing, relatable, underwhelming body language in a movie about an 18-year-old.
A few things are keeping Payne’s latest news from being what it should be. As in Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013), the script works on a solid foundation, with a smooth progression of events. But the humor comes and goes, along with some salient arguments. While people were using the F-word in 1970 (I researched all the top boarding schools), screenwriter Hemingson once again settles for routine swearing as a punchline. As Hemingson wrote it anyway, it feels somehow at odds with the setting and period. While Randolph’s grief-stricken character comes to the fore it deserves as the story progresses, there is a dimension to Mary that is missing from the page. Most of the time it is the artist’s responsibility to fill in the details.
Payne and his design partners take the task of creating the right visual world for these people very seriously. I love that the two movies opening this week, “The Holdovers” and “Priscilla,” begin with close-ups of everyday products dear to their main characters. Aqua Net hairspray for the future Priscilla Presley; For Hunham this is a well used, excellent Prep H tube.
Later in Payne’s film, in a scene lifted in part from Herb Alpert’s Christmas album, the main characters stop by a holiday party thrown by their Barton executive friend (the wonderful, open-hearted Carrie Preston). Hunham dares to hope, after all, that she has feelings for him: the way he smells (a medical condition), the way he looks (an eye condition), and the way he isolates himself among his books.
Giamatti had worked in a similar vein before in “Sideways”; the borderline alcoholic he portrayed had poured his energies into frustrated literary ambitions. Is it too much? Too raw? Some people think so. Not me. He is an unusually astute judge of scale, not to mention intonation and timing. When I first saw Giamatti on stage in the 1990s, his amazing technique already had everything a world-class actor needed to do in any material. It’s a two-second moment, but early in “The Holdovers,” Hunham is having dinner with his disgruntled students after everyone else has gone home. The cruelest of his accusations mutters something horrifying in Mary’s presence; all too accustomed to being rendered invisible by the privileged “rich, stupid” (Mary’s words).
Boom! Giamatti hits the table with both hands and loses it for a full second. Then he gives his answer in the next second, his anger suddenly subdued but still there. This is our first look at the honorable, principled man whom Hunham had thus far overlooked. And no actor alive could handle that better.
I wish the script had been more appropriate to the level of the actors, or to the soft, beautiful evocations of time and place captured by cinematographer Eigil Bryld, who shot “The Holdovers” on 35mm film. (Some theaters, including the Music Box Theater in Chicago, will show the film in 35mm in some screenings.) It’s probably easy to romanticize Hollywood filmmaking in the early ’70s; A lot of forgettable or worse things have come out in that time; as well as endings that played out like minor-key wonders or Hollywood endings that surprised us, often quietly, without much exaggeration or fuss. When it worked, it wasn’t a pose; It felt like a genuine response to an unsettled world.
Let’s call Payne’s film half-and-half: half-real character study, which mixes its tones skillfully and well, and half-artificial ’70s, where the characters are boiled down to one or two clearly defined traits and preoccupations.
For many people, holidays are not easy, whether or not they have money, love, an understanding family, or religion. This film’s religion, if there ever was one, is the Church of Performance, and Giamatti, Sessa, Randolph and company make it worth attending.
“The Holdovers” – 3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language, some drug use and brief sexual material)
Running time: 2:13
How to watch: Premieres in theaters November 2
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.