Heartland: The Holdovers
Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne reunite for another delectable tragicomedy about a man savoring the bitterness of life -- a school teacher stuck with a challenging student over Christmas holidays.
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“I find the world a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me.” —Paul Hunham
It’s not hard to see — some might even say impossible to ignore — the shared DNA between Paul Hunham, the dyspeptic prep school teacher Paul Giamatti plays in “The Holdovers,” and Miles, his character from “Sideways,” his last collaboration with director Alexander Payne nearly 20 years ago.
Both are smart, educated men wiling away their years teaching high school brats, their true passions gaining purchase elsewhere: ancient civilization for Paul, fine wine for Miles. Confirmed bachelors, they consider themselves unlovable, and as such seem determined to return that disdain upon the rest of the world.
Really, what they savor most is the bitterness of life.
Indeed, one could even envision Paul as a logical evolution of Miles 15 or 20 years down the line, if it weren’t for the fact “The Holdovers” takes place decades earlier, over the Christmas holidays in 1970.
Paul is the resident hardcase teacher disliked by all the students — most of the faculty, too — at Barton Academy, an upper-crusty prep school for snotty rich kids and the occasional scholarship recipient in a vague New England setting. He has been bleating about ancient Greece and Carthage to an indifferent audience for so long even the current headmaster is a former student.
The setup is that one faculty member is assigned each year to supervise the titular handful of students unable to travel home for the holidays. It’s not Paul’s turn but a colleague invents a maternal illness so they can get out of the duty, knowing it will fall to the least-liked teacher. Plus, everyone knows Paul really doesn’t have anything else to do or anyplace to go.
He receives a quartet of students to oversee, including two youngsters, a Korean and a Mormon, who have too far to travel home, an especially over-privileged jerk, Kountze (Brady Hepner), and the star football player (Michael Provost), who is having a standoff with his very wealthy father over his long hair. This being the Vietnam era, most of the boys have longish, foppy tresses.
A last-minute addition is Angus Tully, a smart but morose kid played by Dominic Sessa in his very first acting turn on a screen. His mother has just informed him she is planning to use the holidays for a honeymoon with her new husband, so needless to say Angus — already friendless and alienated from his peers — is sent into a depressive spiral.
Also holding over is Mary, the head of the kitchen played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph. She has her own struggles as her teen son, Curtis, a former prized pupil at Barton, was killed a few months ago in the war. She has a weary manner about her, accepting the condolences of the school staff while rolling her eyes at their privilege and casual condescension.
Events transpire that all the other kids wind up leaving after a few days, and it’s just Paul, Angus and Mary. Previously the other students had at least acted as a buffer between Angus and Paul, who made the pupils use their vacation time for extra study and wintry calisthenics outside, the gym and most of the school having the heat shut off to save money.
It’s here the film really hits its stride. Angus and Paul are more alike than either would care to admit, prone to fits of melancholy and misanthropy. Paul holds to traditional attitudes about hard work and discipline making the man, while the kid just wants to wallow. In the middle is Mary, prodding Paul to go easier on the young man and try to empathize what it feels like to be abandoned by your family during the holidays.
Like a lot of folks who have long suffered the slings and arrows of life, Paul is miserly with his empathy toward others. But eventually he moves an inch, and then another.
It’s another magnificent performance by Giamatti, possibly his best since “Sideways.” That film was a huge success, earning boatloads of Oscar nominations including two for his co-stars — but not Giamatti. It’s still one of the most egregious oversights in the history of the Academy. Payne himself won the Oscar for his screenplay.
Interestingly, this is a rare endeavor in which Payne is not also credited as a producer and/or writer, the script duties going to David Hemingson, a veteran television guy making an impressive feature film debut. I’ll give him the ultimate compliment and say that his screenplay feels very Payne-esque — mixing mirth and blackest moods in what can only be called tragicomedy.
A bright light appears as a school administrator, Miss Crane (Carrie Preston), seems to take a liking to Paul, plying him with Christmas cookies, warm smiles and an invitation to her party. Paul being Paul, he dismisses the overture and even seems to resent it, until…
They seem to have gone out of their way to make Paul seem emotionally and physically repulsive, even gifting him with a medical condition that leaves him with a fishy smell and a wandering eye. It’s an impressive effect, to the point I wondered if Giamatti had suffered some sort of real-life malady.
Giamatti gets plenty of opportunities for loquacious zingers and broad comedy, but the film always finds its way back to center — the story of a man who is stubbornly alone in this world. Presented with a student who is in some ways a younger version of himself, he’s finally able to open up a little and show compassion, and thereby allow some for himself, too.
“The Holdovers” is funny in a caustic way, but also surprisingly sentimental and human. Like “Sideways” it takes a bleak, Hobbesian view of mankind and recognizes that for most of us, things will not work out the way we’d like. It’s in adapting to and embracing the life we have that we flourish.