Paul Giamatti’s character, in a film directed by Alexander Payne, is a teacher and wannabe writer who is depressed and angry at his station in life. He abuses alcohol. Others think he is a sad sack and doormat, so he acts out in petty ways. He goes on a journey with another confused guy who has his own problems, and they have mild adventures. They meet women, but the relationships generally do not work out. When things come to an entropic end, our exhausted hero is left clutching a prized bottle of alcohol.
But wait: a last little note of grace suggests there is hope for personal agency and that change might still be possible, despite it all. (“It” being his life.)
Actually, that was Sideways, the award-winning film from 2004 that was the first collaboration between Giamatti and Payne, but all the same plot points apply to The Holdovers, their second collaboration, which screened at festivals earlier this month and is playing now in theaters and streaming on several platforms.
Giamatti, who won and has been nominated for dozens of awards in his career, was passed over by the Academy Awards for his work in Sideways. The similarity of the role in Holdovers will make it interesting to see if he is nominated this time. The cast also features Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Ghost: the Musical; Dolemite is My Name) as a school cook and grieving mother, and Dominic Sessa, who makes his film debut and channels a younger Adam Driver.
The film takes place in December during the school break, has a retro look, and is strong on both comedy and sadness. It is sure to get added to the unofficial list of “Christmas movies”—or, rather, movies that are watched at the year-end holidays. (It is a much more sensical entry than, say, Die Hard or even the Harry Potter movies). You may remember that Giamatti played Santa brilliantly in Fred Claus, a holiday favorite.
For a different filmic comparison, Giamatti’s character (Paul Hunham) in Holdovers is a bit like a negative form of Robin Williams’ character (John Keating) in Dead Poets Society. Both teach in prep schools in a New England of long ago (Holdovers, 1970; Dead Poets, 1959). Both are humanities teachers (Classics, English). Both explicate wisdom literature in their classrooms. Both get in trouble with administration for unorthodox methods.
But where Keating stands on desks and exhorts students to make their lives extraordinary and to seize the day, Hunham (as I regard his name in the approach to the holidays I cannot help but think of honey-baked ham) slouches behind the podium he employs like a scutum, sags at bars, and says things such as, “I find the world a bitter and complicated place. And it seems to feel the same way about me.”
“Most of the kids dislike you, pretty much hate you,” the key student in the story says to him. “Teachers too. You know that, right?”
One of the gifts of the film is that this turns out not to be entirely true. The film has some of what used to be called heart, without being pollyannish.