“The Holdovers” might just as well be called “The Leftovers.”
A little “The Paper Chase” here. A bit of “Scent of a Woman” there. Even, thanks to Paul Giamatti’s glorious hangdog performance, a taste of director Alexander Payne’s own brilliant “Sideways.”
Styled as a kind of instant-nostalgia Christmas story, the film is set at an elite boys’ prep school, Barton Academy, over the holiday break in 1970. Every year, a handful of these poor little rich kids have nowhere to go, and a faculty member is forced to babysit them.
This year, the short straw goes to Paul Hunham (Giamatti), a misanthropic ancient history professor more interested in the Peloponnesian War than the one in Vietnam. Of course, Barton boys are too privileged to be sent over there. They go to Cornell and Yale.
Well, not all Barton boys. In a nice touch, the school is “integrated.” In 1970 terms, that means the occasional Black student. One recent graduate, the son of Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s head cook, not only served, but was killed. After a fitful first half hour, during which we are meant to learn that Barton is made up of teens who are both spoiled and neglected, the campus residents are whittled down to three: Paul, Mary and a smart (but too-smart-mouthed) kid named Angus (Dominic Sessa) who has been disinvited from spending the holidays in St. Kitts with his mom and new stepfather.
A steady but grief-stricken presence, Mary initially remains mostly on the sidelines while Paul and Angus engage in the expected skirmishes. In the picture’s most effective scenes, she and Paul bond over whiskey and “The Newlywed Game” (ah, the ‘60s). There’s a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, an uncomfortable holiday party given by an eager-to-please colleague (Carrie Preston), and a trip to the hospital after Angus dislocates his shoulder.
Eventually, the trio takes a road trip to Boston. While Mary visits family, Paul and Angus bicker then bond, dealing with everything from Daddy issues to life failures. It all ends…well… as many of us…well…older movie-goers expect (say, old enough to have seen “Little Big Man” in 1970)
Though slack-paced, familiar and overlong, “The Holdovers” isn’t difficult to sit through. That’s mostly thanks to the cast. Giamatti is simply a wonderful actor. He could, in his lane, go head-to-head with Daniel Day-Lewis. Randolph has an appealing warmth and seemingly effortless credibility. Newcomer Sessa, lankily handsome, holds his own with these pros. The likable brat is hardly a new concept, but he infuses it with freshness and creativity.
If only “The Holdovers” had some of its actors’ bonafides. But overall, it feels painfully phony. Call me an aging hippie, but it does bother one when a student says he’s got tickets to a Kiss concert. See, it’s 1970 and Kiss didn’t exist until 1973.
“Inside the Warren Commission,” produced by local cinema hero Bill Vanderkloot, airs on WABE tomorrow on Tuesday, Nov. 22 at 11 pm. The documentary examines the numerous issues that intersected during the investigation of “the crime of the century.” Must seeing, especially if you’re a fan of the grassy knoll.