“The Holdovers” takes place in New England somewhere, in 1970, at a tony, all-boys boarding school called Barton, where the students who can’t go home for Christmas wind up spending their breaks in the care of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the sourest, most pompous instructor the movie can find. He teaches ancient civilizations and prides himself on being the sort of principled educator who flunks senators’ kids and says stuff like, “Such are the vicissitudes of life” and “Listen, you hormonal vulgarian!” He smells bad, and breaks into Greek and Latin as much out of spite as bonhomie. The man can read everything but the room.
In fairness, the kids are no picnic, either. They set little traps for Hunham’s arrogance and sic their daddies on the administrators, who then bear down on him. Certainly, the glass eye he uses has made him only more risible to them. Now here he is, as stuck as the five castoffs he’s forced to oversee. And the minute it looks as if the movie’s set to be a deft prep-school caper that pits wily brats against a lemony know-it-all, it introduces a surprise. It’s a ritzy, laugh-out-loud Christmas miracle that whisks away four of the boys at the end of the first act. But one of them, an almost cool only-child named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), can’t go because nobody can reach his parents. (He was ready to lounge on St. Kitts, but his mother takes off without him.) So the movie stays behind, too, and I knew I was in very good hands because, even though that meant almost two more hours with this moody, quarrelsome duo, I didn’t mind.
The hands are Alexander Payne’s. He directed this movie — from a script David Hemingson wrote — and moody, quarrelsome people are his specialty. “The Holdovers” is crackling well before Barton empties out. There’s a sharpness to the comedy, some attitude and freshness, some wisdom. That maybe comes, in part, from the kids looking a little older than their characters are. It also comes from Payne’s emotional finesse. Whatever it is studio technicians do seated at those knobby soundboards, Payne achieves with acting and characterization.
This is his eighth feature-length movie — “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska” and “Downsizing” precede this one. And there’s an easy confidence to it. Even as the story accrues the heft of personal tragedy, each scene seems to float or bob. That’s touch, and Payne’s always had it, this knack for crudeness and discourtesy, for pleasing whiffs of sweetness that can take the form of wit or revenge, pettiness or justice. But it’s never just one group of emotions with him. I’m talking about crudenesses and discourtesies. Sweetnesses. So Hunham is curmudgeonly as opposed to a curmudgeon; the difference is a matter of disposition rather than vocation, meaning Giamatti gets to stop playing an archetype (tweedy intellectual) and inhabit a figure of contour and surprise. We can savor how much Hunham, like his surname, is a tricky jumble of a human.
There’s a scene set among the holdovers in a dining hall, after dinner’s been served, in which Hunham invites the Black woman who cooked it, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), to join them. When one of the kids, a midsize blonde hot shot (Brady Hepner), scoffs, Hunham slams his hands on the table so hard utensils fly. (OK, some rooms he can read.) The script has made sure by this point to introduce Mary as more than her job running the school’s kitchen. She smokes and drinks, and is mourning the loss of a son in Vietnam, a former Barton student. The whole school seems to feel for her. The alcohol seems to lubricate the raising and lowering of her guard.
She and Hunham are the remaining adults, and eventually their only charge is a smart, slippery kid who in some shots looks 17 and, in others, like he’s been doing your taxes for 30 years. What ensues among them becomes a picaresque of sorts, arrayed in quills and cashmere. And you’re free to think of them, seasonally, as ailing Magi. The movie even puts them on the road a couple of times. One stop isn’t terribly far, just a party sequence at the home of a Barton administrator (a terrific Carrie Preston) whose second job is waitressing in town and whose first appears to be luring Hunham deep inside her heart. The other stop is a proper adventure that I don’t want to spoil, because part of what makes a movie like this special is the way it unfolds and how the characters reveal themselves to each other and how Payne, Hemingson and the actors reveal them to us.
This is Giamatti’s second outing with Payne, and he’s as acerbic here as he was in “Sideways.” But this time, Giamatti embraces the wounds of life’s defeats. It’s a less reactive, reactionary performance. The part rewards his tendency to overdo it because the rumpled sad sack he’s playing has a lot more emotional and psychological acreage — and only one functioning eye! For Giamatti, that’s like performing a long program on a single skate. His scenes with Randolph and Sessa are affectionate, but also funny a dozen different ways. Sessa’s in his first movie, but he’s a natural. He can do that adolescent kind of perceptiveness. He can capture “rash,” “naïve” and “astutely attentive.” (Angus is learning how to read rooms.)
Meanwhile, I’m not going to sit here and overthink the irony (or inevitability, perhaps) that this is the best part Randolph has ever had. The movie dares you to think it. She’s built rotund, like Hattie McDaniel, and spends the movie in and out of a service uniform. But her mouth is Pearl Bailey’s. She’s given Mary a middleweight Boston accent — a middleweight Black Boston accent. And because she’s working at Payne’s soundboard of feeling, Randolph is encouraged to have a ball with abrasiveness, delicacy and brightness; half a dozen kinds of saltiness, too.
At that administrator’s party, Mary puts on “When Winter Comes” and says that her son loved him some Artie Shaw. How many mothers of Black boys in 1970 could make that announcement with as much fondness? Maybe the most important thing we see Mary do here, from the standpoint of movie history, is experience other Black people as other people, even if it’s just to resist the ardor of the school maintenance man, played by Naheem Garcia, who’s a delight. When Mary disappears for a stretch during their trip, we miss her. But we’ve also seen where she is, and leaving her there for about 20 minutes constitutes a gesture of genuine respect.
Once it’s all over, and the movie has reminded you of “Dead Poets Society” or maybe half a dozen films from the 1970s, like “The Paper Chase,” you might also feel what I did: like you’ve seen an inversion of Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” which opened 25 years ago. Payne and Anderson arrived at roughly same moment in the mid-1990s. Only, Payne’s milieu is world-weary, harsh, slouched, bluer-collared, grayer. I saw “Rushmore” when I was loosely older than Max Fischer, the movie’s go-getting, adolescent old-soul protagonist. Anderson’s declarative archness and rigorous eye rocked my world. A geek had gotten his revenge, opening a nerdcore floodgate. But, more important, his romanticism felt true. Cruelly, my peer is now Paul Hunham, a figure humbled by principle, hampered by pride and, by the end of “The Holdovers,” humbled some more; he’s Max Fischer, slumped.
Watching Anderson’s films has steadily made me the ogler Matthew McConaughey plays in “Dazed and Confused”; I keep getting older, and they just stay the same. The romanticism has calcified; his movies are less ardent, as much sculptures to passion as passionate themselves. Payne’s weakness was for pessimism, a hardened freewheeling version. His movies were about cynics, the native-born and the arrivistes. But somewhere along the way, he and Anderson swapped and the romantic intruded. Payne’s characters began needing each other and connecting, and that crackle kicked in. That’s especially true of his last two — the other is “Downsizing,” a soulful futurist satire with Matt Damon and Hong Chau that nobody saw. In middle age, Payne has come newly to life, whereas the Anderson of 2021’s “The French Dispatch” and this year’s “Asteroid City” seems to me as alienated from sensation as ever, hiding in and fussing over the past rather than interrogating or inhabiting it.
“The Holdovers” kicks off with the same kind of twerpy, entitled under- and upperclassfolk that dominate “Rushmore.” But he sends them away to get down to a more pungent, nitty-gritty kind of comedy. One character tells another his near murderous sob story, and at some point a different character deadpans to him, “Here you go, killer.” This is Payne’s first movie set in any kind of past — it’s using the old M.P.A.A. rating card and was shot, by Eigil Bryld, on cozy 35-millimeter. But it doesn’t feel stuck there. Payne’s not locking us out, he’s letting us in, practicing what I suspect is Paul Hunham’s stock in trade during the school year, bringing ancient civilizations to aching life.
Rated R for cigarettes, booze, unparented kids. Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes. In theaters.