A sincere and funny “Sideways” reunion that’s more than meets the eye.
Less than 20 years after collaborating on one of the most original and delicious comedies “Sideways,” director Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti are back together for “The Holdovers.” It’s a dramedy that chooses to be brutally funny or sincere, especially when it features characters you think you hate, but learn to appreciate them once you get to know them.
For example, Giamatti plays the most traditional and unlikable professor at Barton Academy named Paul Hunham. He’s the kind of teacher who would give “C,” “D,” “F+” and one “B+” to his students, and who would give them a make-up exam, but with new material they must read over Christmas break. Even he hates his job, and I wouldn’t blame him.
But nonetheless, he’s supposed to be the supervisor for the students, who can’t return home to their families for the holidays. The time may be the early 70s, but these youngsters seem worthy of living up to the detention kids in “The Breakfast Club.” But most of them are invited to on a skiing trip, leaving only one student behind.
And that one individual is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose father passed away, and whose mother (Gillian Vigman) decides to spend her holidays on a honeymoon with her new husband (Tate Donovan). You think he’s a jerk, at first, because of the way he gets into fights with the other students and always trades insults with Paul. You still think that further when he engages in a childish chase sequence that ultimately injures the boy. So you’re probably thinking: “Why should we care about this kid and teacher? Because as the story develops, there will be an understanding between the two.
And plus, they aren’t alone in the sympathy, because there’s also the cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son has died in battle, and must serve the holdovers whatever is left in the kitchen until a new batch of food arrives. It takes awhile for her to let out all her emotions, but her tone and attitude keeps the character in check in the meantime.
“The Holdovers” is almost as entertaining and original as “Sideways,” because of the way Payne once again guides Giamatti with the vulnerabilities to represent his character’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s also because of the character development between him being unlikable and later being sympathetic. And you’re able to see some likability in his main student and the cook (both brilliantly portrayed by Sessa and Randolph), because they have their problems, which are why they have lousy attitudes and dispositions.
I try to keep negativity out of my life, but the fact is you can’t be happy all the time. There has to be pathos in your life, and you have to find a way to deal with your problems. This movie takes its time to deal with their issues, and they don’t go long or too short.
The movie opens with the old “This Motion Picture Has Been Rated R,” and a Focus Feature logo that wants to look retro. So, as we’re seeing them, we’re thinking it’s a throwback to the cinema in the 70s. And it would make sense, considering the movie’s time period.
But I don’t want to recommend “The Holdovers” for the way it presents its studio logo. I want to recommend it for the “Sideways” reunion, the excellent performances, the honest comedy, and the strong emotions within. Payne’s last film “Downsizing” was good, but not great, while his latest entry is a considerable improvement. It questions the personalities of the characters whom you think you want nothing to do with, but eventually, you realize they all have a unique character study. This is one of the best films of the year.
In Select Theaters This Friday
Expands Nationwide November 10
This article was written by me with full support of the SAG-AFTRA strike.