Alexander Payne returns to the director’s chair with a new holiday story. The buzz surrounding the film would indicate it’s a new seasonal classic. Does it live up to the hype? We meet Paul Hunham, a grumpy history teacher at a New England private school. He is forced to stay on campus during the holidays with a troubled student and the school cook who just lost her son. Together, they find comfort in each other’s struggles to make their holiday season a little bit brighter.
“The Holdovers” is an Alexander Payne film through and through. The gritty camera style, dry sense of humor, and troubled characters are on brand for his filmography. Even if I don’t totally connect to his films every time, I always appreciate his style. Unique filmmaking is becoming harder and harder to come by these days, so a character driven story with effective arcs are always welcomed in my film library. Paul Giamatti gives a great performance here. He has found a groove playing characters with a snippy persona who are full of unique character traits. The awkward nature of his character provides a sense of curiosity with audiences. We want to learn more about him as the film goes on, and as we go on this journey with him, we see that there is a lot he hides beneath the surface. That goes for the other characters as well. Mary is also a person who compartmentalizes her trauma. Hearing her describe the long standing mourning she has for her son was heartbreaking to experience. Angus also has many layers to his persona. His troubled home life mixed with his inability to find direction makes him a young man to sympathize with. His smart mouth persona combines nicely with Giamatti’s Hunham. The two establish a sense of respect while not seeing eye to eye on most things. But what I loved about these three characters is that each develop a rapport through learning about one another. Sometimes when you’re stuck together with different people who experience the same kind of heartache, connections flourish at the most unexpected times. I give “The Holdovers” credit for reminding us that each person has something to offer. A message fitting for the holidays.
I enjoy Payne’s signature cinematography as well. He is committed to the time period in which this story takes place. We feel the chilly air carrying through the hallways and the discomfort each character is feeling about their own loneliness. It’s refreshing that some filmmakers are committed to keeping classic filmmaking styles alive through stories like this. I also enjoyed that the film felt accessible to everyone while still maintaining an indie vibe. Sometimes Payne makes films that are niche to a fault. But “The Holdovers” has something for everyone. Most viewers will be able to enjoy the film during the holiday season with their family. So kudos to Payne for making a film everyone can connect with.
I certainly enjoyed “The Holdovers”, but there was a lingering sense of distance I felt with the characters. Each of them were unique in their own way. I wanted to learn more about them, but I didn’t feel very connected to them. Angus in particular felt too harsh and distant to truly relate to as a regular person. His sense of humor and delivery was a little over the top and crude when we’re asked to feel sorry for him at other instances. His character’s presence in the film felt uneven at times. Hunham is also a unique character, where his problems are only addressed quickly without much explanation on his part. This isn’t universal, but there were a few instances I wanted more elaboration on his part. I might have felt a greater connection to him by the end if his problems were fleshed out more.
The humor is hit and miss as well. Some of it is so vulgar to the point where it felt bombastic just to be weird. It didn’t seem right in certain situations where a more subtle sense of humor would have felt more organic. I also didn’t feel like the ending was very satisfying. It wasn’t rewarding for all the sacrifices Hunham made for Angus. It was meant to be an emotional payoff to keep doors open for Angus, but I just didn’t think it worked very well. It’s a predictable, serviceable ending. Nothing about it feels surprising or fulfilling.
Most will enjoy “The Holdovers” if they decide to give it a watch this holiday season. It is a nice little story that connects broken people through the spirit of community. Performances all around are good. But some inconsistencies within the humor and evolution of the story left me wanting more from a film that has garnered such acclaim. I have a feeling most will enjoy this more than me, but even I found a lot to love here. It’s not the masterpiece I hoped it would be, but credit to Alexander Payne for making another old school story.