The Holdovers (2023)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 26, 2023 @

The Holdovers is a more challenging movie than it might seem on the surface.

It is replete with meaningful dualities and dichotomies.

The Holdovers is the story of Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), an irascible, acerbic classics professor at a prep school in New England in the 1970s. His attitude and his life seem dependent on pedantic references to the Punic War and to Marcus Aurelius and Cicero. He and his students have nothing in common, and he haughtily lets them know it.

As school is breaking for Christmas, he gives his class back their exams. With a flourish, he throws them on the students' desks. Almost all have terrible grades on them.

They whine and complain, so he agrees to give them a make-up exam with added material, which they should study over the Christmas break.

The students leave campus. But a few remain at school, because for different reasons they can't be with their families. Eventually one of the fathers takes them by helicopter for a Christmas skiing trip.

But one student remained behind, because the school couldn't reach his parents for permission. Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is a problem student. He has been thrown out of three schools because he rebels. He is smart but difficult.

Paul is given the responsibility of watching over him. There are only four left on campus, Paul, Angus, the head cook Mary (Da'vine Joy Randolph), and the janitor Danny (Naheem Garcia).

Originally they are distant, but they begin to bond.

Paul and Angus go on a field trip to Boston, On the way they drop Mary off to visit her sister (Juanita Pearl) in Roxbury.

Their experience in Boston is compelling. But it leads to trouble back at the prep school. Paul is forced to make a significant choice.

The clever screenplay by David Hemingson offers a lot of dualities. The characters are faced with them. They have to decide how to handle them. Often the choices are made for them, or they are avoided.

The dualities are symbolic. They often are dichotomies.

Paul has a bad eye. Angus asks him which eye he should look at when he's talking to Paul.

Paul gets two books - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius from the distant past, and a book with blank pages which he may fill in the future.

Angus has two fathers - one a stepfather.

A snow globe can be a gift of love or a weapon.

In Boston, Paul and Angus bowl. Paul first throws a gutter ball, then a strike.

Angus skates as Paul sits and watches. Angus falls on the ice, but it's a pleasant experience for him.

In Boston, Paul meets his former roommate at Harvard. One of them cheated.

Paul and Angus go to the movies. On the screen is the western with Dustin Hoffman, Little Big Man (1970). Little and Big.

In The Holdovers, Paul is approached by two women - one unavailable. The other is unappealing to him. He tells Angus he "lives like a Monk," but as a young man he had sexual exploits that would "curl your hair."

In Roxbury Mary still is grieving over the death of her young son Curtis in Vietnam. Her sister is pregnant. Mary says if it's a boy his middle name is going to be him Curtis. There will be two Curtises - one dead and the other just born.

In the early part of the film, one long-haired athlete at the school refuses to cut his hair despite his father's wishes. When he returns from the ski trip, he has short hair.

In another scene, a boy wets the bed, but eventually rolls over to the dry side.

Another has his mitten thrown away by another student. He throws away the other one. Later when Paul, Angus, Mary, and Danny are eating alone, Paul eats a tasty Christmas cookie that looks like a mitten.

In another scene Angus dislocates his shoulder, but it's popped back in place at the hospital. He's physically fine, it's psychologically that he's damaged.

Of course, in The Holdovers the ultimate symbol is a crossroads.

Alexander Payne's direction evolves along with the characters. The beginning is a bit drab, and some of the acting is awkward. But as the film develops, the quality takes over. It's Payne's best since Sideways (2004).

A critic faces the same dilemma that the characters in the film do. Is he or she just a generic reviewer who gives plot analysis and rates the movie? Does he or she basically stay on the surface? Or does he or she make the choice to participate in the movie?

As the year draws to a close, The Holdovers seems ideally appropriate.

Are we about to change or stay the same?

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