Formerly Known As Cinema


Alexander Payne's THE HOLDOVERS


Alexander Payne has gone with a retro 70’s look for his latest film, “The Holdovers,” adding digital scratch marks to the opening credits and using a soft grainy texture and desaturated color palette to try and evoke the nostalgic feeling of old home movies.

It’s a daring stunt to make something that looks like it’s been sitting in a vault for fifty years, but Payne’s designers have all done a commendable job bringing the 70’s to life without lapsing into cliché.

And the premise itself is great: Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, a crabby teacher at a fancy New England prep school (Paul Giamatti) and one of his snotty students (newcomer Dominic Sessa) bond over Christmas break while both are stuck on campus for the duration.

Unfortunately, once the characters start talking and the scenes play out, the film reveals itself to be almost nothing like the genre or period Payne is trying to honor, containing not one breath of the independent spirit, roguish energy and subversive bite that made the 1970’s such an indelible decade for film.

And Payne’s done himself no favors by trying to place this lightweight movie alongside the work of director’s like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Elaine May, Woody Allen, George Roy Hill and Paul Mazursky. (Critics who insist on comparing Payne’s film to the great works of that era need to give themselves a history lesson).

The trouble lies primarily with David Hemingson’s serviceable but uninspired script.


Though reasonably well-structured, the dialog itself lacks the necessary imagination to bring it to life, relying instead on the broadest generalizations imaginable in an apparent attempt to reach the widest possible audience.

Personal stories are what make a movie sing. But they require an emotional intelligence, a facility for language and an access to the inner workings of the psyche.

But Hemingson seems to lack even a modicum of self-awareness or the means to transfer it to the page. His script is so non-specifically generic it’s completely dependent on the actors’ individual skills to provide whatever interest there is.

And only Carrie Preston, in the small part of a faculty member at the high school, manages to elevate the material through the thrilling and totally organic choices she makes as an actor.

To Payne, a joke at the expense of a character’s dignity is more important than whether or not it makes sense. He, however, makes the idiotic decision to introduce her character with bright red lipstick smeared on her teeth even though she’s later shown to be capable of decorating Christmas cookies like a patissier and throwing a party with the finesse of Martha Stewart. There’s simply no way on Earth she would leave her house without checking her teeth for lipstick stains.

And this is just one of dozens of inconsistencies that muddy the already murky water of the story.

The rest of the cast, even the usually marvelous Paul Giamatti, who plays the lead role of the History teacher, Paul Hunham, can’t quite make these cardboard collections of random traits into people we believe in, or, frankly, even understand.

The issue is an across the board lack of motivation: The characters don’t act out of personal desire, rather they move in an arbitrary fashion, like game pieces, to suit the specific needs of the plot.

For instance, at one point Sessa’s bratty student, Angus, declares that his father is dead for no other reason than to provide a ‘twist’ when it turns out his father is actually alive; and Preston’s faculty member, Lydia, blatantly flirts with Giamatti’s teacher not because she’s interested in him, but just so he can get his hopes up and then be disappointed when it turns out she already has a boyfriend.

And this stacked deck quality makes the experience of watching “The Holdovers” a frustrating slog.

Paul Giamatti has been a favorite of mine ever since he played Howard Stern’s constantly seething boss, Pig Vomit, in Betty Thomas’s hilarious biopic “Private Parts.” And he can still rage with the best of them.

But his character of Paul Hunham has been overburdened with too many physical ailments, none of which are ever explored emotionally.

So the fact that he suffers from strabismus (misaligned eyes) AND hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating) AND Trimethylaminuria (a rare genetic condition that causes a person to smell like fish), only serves as lame justification for his bad disposition. We never hear HOW these disorders have actually affected his life.

If we were given anything: a story from childhood, or a disastrous attempt at dating or simply a sentence expressing his outlook on the world given the miseries he has had to deal with, it would do wonders for the character. But Hemingson has decided that simply mentioning the problems are explanation enough.

Likewise, the character of Mary, the tireless cafeteria lady (a miscast Da’Vine Joy Randolph), spends the entire movie mourning the loss of her son who died in Vietnam, but we never hear a word about what they meant to each other outside of the obvious fact that they were related, so her grief remains mundane and formless, never coming close to touching the heart.


Once again, a single detail could’ve been the key to allowing Mary to personalize her loss in a way we could connect with. A letter, a memory, an argument she regrets, anything.

But when Mary is called upon to express herself in the character’s big drunken scene at a Christmas party, the writer’s solution is to have her scream “He’s GONE!” and that’s literally all we get.

Dominic Sessa is perfectly fine as Angus, the smartypants student who causes all the mayhem in the plot. But it’s hard to get a bead on who this character is supposed to be.

We keep getting told what a pain in the ass he is, and he does say some unkind things, but mostly he acts like a hurt little boy who misses his mom. Which is fine, but it doesn’t really connect to the unmotivated actions the writer has him engage in.

In fact both Sessa and Giamatti seem more interested in currying favor from the audience than playing the darker beats that the combative relationship seems to require.

Consequently, the conflict at the heart of the movie never fully materializes. We get a generic series of fights and truces but it’s all played at the same volume with no discernible dynamic shift.

Worse, Payne keeps missing chances to deepen his story by skipping over any possibility of intimacy so he can race to the next head-scratching action beat.

On Christmas morning, for instance, Paul Hunham goes in search of Angus so they can open presents together. And he finds him in the auditorium playing Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1” on the piano.

It’s a tender, gentle and beautiful moment. And because of Hunham’s love of classical music (we hear him listening to the adagio from Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto earlier in the movie) it seems a perfect opportunity for him to bond with this kid he’s been desperately trying to connect with.

But does this chatty, constantly correcting history teacher, who never misses a chance to instruct, say “Ahh, Satie, lovely,” or “I didn’t know you played the piano,” or acknowledge in any way the music that’s being played?

No. He ignores it all together, instead asking, inexplicably “Where have you been?” And that’s it.


But there are nagging questions that pop up every five minutes in this lazy mess of a movie:

Why is there an antique bookstore set up outside in the snow?

Why does Mary ignite a plate of cherries jubilee and then throw the match into the dessert?

Why does Angus purposely injure himself by jumping over a pommel horse into a hard wooden floor?

Why does Hunham frantically spray Glade air freshener into his arm pits as if he’s never in sixty years once thought about how to cover up his body odor?

Why is Miller High Life, and the phrase “It’s the Champagne of Beers” repeated no less than four times?

Why do the characters seem to evaporate the second they walk offscreen?

And yet the plot, even with its series of unmotivated reveals and pointless straw man obstacles that get instantly solved, does somehow manage to arrive at a place of resolution by the final act. The bad teacher learns how to teach. The smartypants student learns how to trust.

But 113 minutes is way too long a trek just to arrive at an ending we can see coming a mile away.



An LA-based playwright, JUSTIN TANNER has more than twenty produced plays to his credit, including Voice Lessons, Day Drinkers, Space Therapy, Wife Swappers, and Coyote Woman. His Pot Mom received the PEN-West Award for Best Play.

He has written for the TV shows Gilmore Girls, My So-Called Life and the short-lived Love Monkey. He wrote, directed and edited 88 episodes of the web series Ave 43, available on YouTube.

Tanner is the current Playwright in Residence for the Rogue Machine Theatre in Hollywood, where his most recent play Little Theatre, of December of 2022, was met with rave reviews. Charles McNulty of the LA Times writes, "Engrossing... a comedy à clef... “Little Theatre” is invaluable.'"



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