By Will Sloan
Opening with an early-‘70s MPAA disclaimer, and layering film speckles over its opening titles, The Holdovers wastes no time announcing itself as The Sort Of Movie They Don’t Make Anymore. Six years after the poor reception that greeted his audacious Downsizing (2017), Alexander Payne’s return is as comfortable and familiar as an old pair of slippers.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A crusty professor and a troubled youth are thrown together. Adversaries in act one, by act three they have come to respect each other… and perhaps even learn a little bit, too. The year is 1970. The setting is an elite New England boarding school. The professor—a pompous, widely disliked history teacher named Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti)—is tasked with caretaking the teens left behind during the Christmas break. Within a few days, the last remaining youth is Angus (first-timer Dominic Sessa), whip-smart and disobedient, with enough familial trauma to separate him from his trust-fund classmates. Between the immovable object and the unstoppable force is the third major character: Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a black cook whose son was killed in the war that most of his white classmates managed to avoid.
Surprise revelations and complicating details are meted out on cue across the luxurious 133-minute runtime. By the end, a character is quite literally idling his car at a crossroad. Dear reader, I am not made of stone. Payne and cinematographer Eigil Bryld give the campus an effectively melancholy winter atmosphere, and the performers imbue the familiar scenario with feeling. It’s pleasurable to hear Giamatti lay on the tangy line-readings and hit the emotional beats in a heavy-duty star turn… but the biggest asset is Randolph, who gets a great showcase as a grieving mother whose coping strategy is to just keep working. Favouring wry understatement over Oscar-clip showboating, Randolph’s performance is the main surprise in a pleasant dramedy that feels a little beneath what Payne is capable of.