If we’re to believe books and movies, the world of prep-school lads is very sad indeed. Their mothers are usually divorcees, a martini permanently affixed to one hand, busy jetting off with their new beaux while their sons languish at school, slowly and inadvertently learning to hate women. Their teachers are joyless. Their classmates are often rich, spoiled brats. All of those things come to play in Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers—written by David Hemingson—and by themselves, they’re believable enough. There’s also a late-in-the-story revelation that’s truly wrenching, the sort of anguish you’d never wish on any kid but that is, sadly, the stuff of real life. The problem isn’t what happens in The Holdovers; it’s how Payne, often lauded as a filmmaker of sharp, dry wit, with a keen eye for the spiky side of human nature, comes at the material. Like most of Payne’s movies (Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska), The Holdovers is merely coated with a thin veneer of misanthropy that Payne methodically buffs off to reveal actual human feelings. It's the mechanism that works for him, but that doesn’t make it a good one.
Paul Giamatti is Paul Hunham, a downtrodden, miserable teacher of ancient history at a New England prep school, the fictional Barton Academy. It’s 1969 and the Christmas holiday is approaching. Hunham, as punishment for failing a legacy student whose father has just paid for a gymnasium upgrade, has been charged with a task nobody else wants: sticking around to look after “the holdovers,” the kids who have nowhere to go over the holiday break. He doesn’t mind; his plan is to sadistically fill their days with study—forget the fact that they’re supposed to be on vacation. There are a handful of them to start, until one of the richer parents whisks them all off on a ski trip—or all but one. The parents of Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) can’t be reached for permission, so he’s stuck with Hunham, roaming the halls of the deserted school. The only other souls are a couple of staffers, including the acerbically cheerful cook Mary Lamb (the eminently likable Da’vine Joy Randolph), who’s quietly nursing intense grief: this is her first Christmas without her son, a graduate of the school (her job there got him through) who has been killed in Vietnam.
Tully’s mother is newly remarried and this Christmas break is her only chance to take a honeymoon; his father is out of the picture, though it’s not initially clear if that’s due to divorce or death. But even though Tully has a degree of swagger—he has that lanky, brainy look, the sort of half-annoying, half-endearing swain who’d be equally versed in Baudelaire and the Rolling Stones—he’s so obnoxious that he repels everyone around him. Still, it’s clear he’s a pretty broken kid. His mother had promised to take him to Boston during the break, and that busted promise alone seems to have crushed him.
Hunham doesn’t care, and doesn’t want to care. He’s close to Mary—they’ve been known to gossip over a shot or two of Jim Beam, and he excoriates one of the snobbier students who looks down on her as a servant. But as far as his students go, Hunham would really rather not get to know them as people. Until, somehow, something softens in him and he decides a road trip to Boston—undertaken in the guise of an educational museum jaunt—is just the ticket, and he learns exactly why Tully is so troubled.
The raw goods of The Holdovers are by themselves promising enough: who doesn’t love a crisp, cozy Christmas holiday in Boston, one during which closed-off human beings discover their true capacity to care for one another? Payne goes for all the right retro-touches: the young guys’ shaggy haircuts, the requisite Badfinger needledrop. He even opens the film with vintage Miramax and Focus Features logos.
But there’s always so much emotional calculation involved in an Alexander Payne film. It’s not just that characters are surprised to learn they have actual feelings; it’s that Payne is surprised too, as if he’s suddenly looked around and realized, Wow, people really do need people! Suddenly, the fog lifts—why, Payne isn’t a satirical curmudgeon after all, but a clear-eyed sentimentalist who truly understands the unruly beauty of human nature. Nearly every Payne movie follows this formula, with the exception, perhaps, of the odd but undismissable Downsizing, a futuristic science-fiction comedy-romance about humans (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) who avail themselves of new technology that miniaturizes them so they’ll use fewer resources. It’s the one picture most Payne fans dislike, but also the one in which he takes the most daring chances. (It also features an extraordinary performance by Hong Chau.)
The Holdovers hasn’t challenged Payne in the same way, and there are moments of his usual sourness—the type of thing that his fans sometimes applaud him for, thinking of it as being edgy when it’s really just thoughtless. As Hunham browses with Tully through an outdoor book stall in Boston’s Combat Zone, an older sex worker propositions him. He rebuffs her more than once, assuring her, with his highly cultured diction, that he’s not in need of her services, though Tully urges him on, saying he should go for it if he wants. The point, maybe, is that our hearts are supposed to be warmed by the sight of a younger man telling an older, more repressed one that it’s OK to have a sex drive. The sex worker—disheveled, down on her luck—slinks away. She’s the pawn who’s been used to make the point, then summarily dismissed. Somehow, we’re supposed to feel good about all of it, as if we’ve just witnessed a Dickensian vignette of great human complexity.
The movie does have Giamatti going for it; he’s a wonderful actor, and he plays Hunham as one of those teachers who’s devoted to his specialty but has no idea how to link it to the real world. (In one of the movie’s finest scenes, set in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, he and Tully examine an ancient vase decorated with a copulating couple. “There’s nothing new in human experience,” he tells his young charge.) And Sessa, with his guarded eyes, walks a fine line: he’s just unpleasant enough to be believable, yet charming enough to be bearable. But any warmth The Holdovers gives off is the premeditated kind, like those heating packets you tuck into your mittens on cold days. They’re designed to do the job in the moment. But nothing beats a real fire.
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