erik lundegaard


Monday December 11, 2023

Movie Review: The Holdovers (2023)


At Barton Academy, a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, several students are unable to return home during Christmas break 1970. It’s an annual occurrence, for which a teacher is always left in charge, and this year Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) gets the assignment. It’s not his year but he recently flunked the son of a U.S. senator, who was a big donor, incurring the wrath of the headmaster, Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman). So when the assigned teacher came up with a lame excuse (“My mother has lupus”), Hunham got tapped.

Few are happy about this—certainly not Hunham, and definitely not the kids. He teaches an ancient civilizations course, uses Latin liberally, and grades harshly. He’s walleyed, smells of fish, drinks too much. He’s disliked by students, faculty, staff. 

But over the course of winter break, he and the most obstreperous of the students, Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sess), fight and bond, fight and bond, and bit by bit reveal more of themselves. It’s broken people finding each other, along with more of their own humanity. That’s a movie trope, often called “heartwarming,” but each scene feels genuine. There’s a stiltedness. Nothing quite lands in the way of movies. No scene is wholly satisfying. 

And I kind of liked that, but I still found Alexander Payne’s film, well, unsatisfying. And I don’t know if it’s because, deep down, I want the Hollywood of it all, or for a different, awful reason.

I just didn’t like the kid.

The journey
Angus should be thoroughly sympathetic. He’s shuttled from boarding school to boarding school, and the next stop is military academy and maybe Vietnam. His mother is recently remarried but she and hubby decide to go on a delayed honeymoon rather than host a family gathering. That’s why Angus is a holdover. And where’s his father? An early reveal comes in an argument with Paul:

Paul: You think I want to babysit you? I was praying your mother would pick up the phone, or your father would arrive in a helicopter or a flying saucer—
Angus: My father’s dead!

Except he's not. After Angus finagles a chaperoned trip to Boston, he abandons Paul in a movie theater where they’re watching Dustin Hoffman in “Little Big Man,” and when Paul catches up to him the truth is revealed: His dad is in a mental institution. He himself is taking anti-depressants. He’s sad about dad but worried that what happened to the old man will happen to him. He has no friends. One of the upper classmen is vaguely racist (Teddy Kountze, played by Brady Hepner), one is the supermellow star quarterback (Jason Smith, played by Michael Provost), while Angus is, you know, Angus. He stands up to Kountze’s backward racist barbs, sort of, and he’s empathetic when a smaller kid, a Korean kid, cries about missing his family. We should like him. So why don’t we? Or why don’t I?

Is it that he doesn’t let us in? He feels like elbows. He feels like thrashing.

How do you make an unlikeable character likeable? How does Paul Giamatti do it? Or do I just like his character because I’m closer to him? Both of us are on the wrong side of middle age, and wondering why what we know is considered useless while what we consider useless is everywhere in the culture. Mr. Hunham actually has a greater sense of humor about it than I do.

I like him because he has enthusiasms. He loves what he teaches, thinks it’s important, has standards and ethics he doesn’t compromise. He has wit, particularly in interactions with his students:

Kountze: Sir, I don’t understand.
Hunham: That is glaringly apparent.
Kountze: I can’t fail this class.
Hunham: Oh, don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze, I truly believe that you can.

And even as he tries to inculcate these kids with what he considers ancient, important wisdom, he has a shrugging acceptance of the way things are. “I find the world a bitter and complicated place,” he says, “and it seems to feel the same way about me.” At another point, as a lesson to the kids: “Life is a henhouse ladder: shitty and short.” He can’t help the walleye, he can’t help the fish smell, but he muddles through. I would rewatch the movie for him. 

The period details are amazing. Hanging in the dorm is that W.C. Fields black-and-white poster where he’s holding cards close to the chest and looking suspiciously around. (Mouse over the poster for a glance.) “One of my brothers had that poster,” my wife whispered to me. “We had it in the family rec room,” I whispered back. It was a thing seen everywhere back then and now nowhere. Who even knows W.C. Fields anymore? But there he was. Perfect.

At one point in Boston, they’re coming up out of a subway tunnel, and a woman is exiting in front of them, Jewish maybe, with a kind of black dress and a long dangling necklace of … a peace sign? I forget what it was. It just felt exact. So was all this the work of production designer Ryan Warren Smith? He was born in 1977 so wouldn’t know this stuff first-hand. Was it Smith working with Payne? A team effort?

It’s not just the details in the movie but the details surrounding it. You see it in the trailer: its stentorian voiceover; that final awkward hold on Giamatti’s shocked face. So perfectly ’70s. They have fun with it. The R rating in the beginning of the movie is that ultra-blue R rating screen from the ’70s. The Focus Features logo is full of the fat bends of the early 1970s.

Initially there are five holdovers, watched over by Mr. Hunham and the Black head of the kitchen, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who’s there because she lives there. She took the job way back when so her son could attend Barton. It’s a bit like Jenny Fields in “Garp.” Except when her son graduated, he couldn’t afford college like his rich white peers so he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He died in combat. She’s broken, too, but puts on a tired, brave face. Until she doesn’t. 

Four of the five kids wind up being helicoptered away—literally. Smith, the QB, is only there because his dad (who owns a helicopter plant or something) won’t let the kid come on the holiday ski trip unless he cuts his damn hair, and, though it’s never stated, it seems like the kid brokers a deal: take all of us holdovers and you get your wish. Near the end of the movie, we see him in the shower with short hair. I assume it’s him anyway. It’s the only time we see anyone with short hair.

Angus is the holdover who doesn’t go because his mom doesn’t pick up the phone. So he doesn’t even have peers anymore. And his thrashing and self-pity get worse.

What do we learn about Mr. Hunham in the process? That he was engaged once. That he suffers from a disease that causes the fish smell. That he got kicked out of Harvard for plagiarizing his roommate’s work, even though it was the opposite, and the roommate, the cheating rich kid, went on to success. Hunham was given a chance at Barton and clung to it. We learn that his enthusiasm for history and ancient Greece is genuine. 

What do we learn about the kid? The dad and the depression.

And Mary? We learn that “The Newlywed Game” and her drinking cover up a bottomless sorrow about her son that bursts forth at the Christmas party. We also learn she has a sister with a baby. We see her bring the sister her son’s old baby clothes. We learn she’s saving money so that some day that baby can go to college—so what happened to her son won’t happen to him. She’s given herself a reason to live.

Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson even give her the Jack Nicholson diner scene from “Five Easy Pieces.” You’ve got bread? And a toaster of some kind? For her, it’s cherries jubilees, which the restaurant won’t serve to the kid because of the brandy. So she orders the cherries and the ice cream to go. And in the parking lot, they douse it with their whisky and light it on fire and laugh. It’s their fuck you to the system, but this, too, doesn’t quite land. The fire gets out of control. They stomp on it with their feet. Life is not a Hollywood movie.

The sacrifice
I wondered how they would end it. School would start, and something would happen in ancient civ, and Hunham and Angus would share fond, knowing glances? There’s a bit of that, but short-lived. 

Because Angus’ awful mom and step-dad arrive, furious at the school and Mr. Hunham for allowing Angus to visit his father at a sanatorium. Now Dad thinks he’s returning home, and he tried to brain an orderly with the snow globe Angus gave him. The visit was the result of Angus’ machinations, but Hunham knows the next step for the kid is military school, then maybe Vietnam, and maybe an early grave. So he takes the bullet. He says it was all his idea. 

For that, he’s fired, but the kids hail him as a hero. Kidding. It’s the opposite. Rumors float about something untoward he did in the boys’ locker room—not that, just something stupid, like literally eating shit—and as he’s packing up his little car, which requires him to get in via the passenger seat (another great period detail), Angus comes over to talk, to thank him. They tell each other to stay strong. Again, the scene doesn’t land in a Hollywood way. You never really get the sense that Angus gets it—the sacrifice that was made on his behalf. 

I’m curious if Payne and Hemingson made the kid all elbows in order to make Hunham’s sacrifice more profound? Or is it more profound? It’s just messy. Hunham even seems to wonder over it.

At least now I know why the movie’s reception has been muted. But I don’t know. The more I write about it, the more I like it.

Posted at 09:38 AM on Monday December 11, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023