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"The Holdovers" 4K Review

Oscar darling Alexander Payne returns with The Holdovers, a retro-themed drama that so deliberately tries to feel like a movie from the time that the opening credits put the copyright date as 1971. It's nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, and Editing.

Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Hunham, a misanthropic classics teacher at fictional Massachusetts boarding school Barton Academy. It's the last day before the Christmas break and he gets roped into babysitting the handful of students who won't be going home for the holidays including Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a smartmouth teenager who was boasting about his plans for travel to the Caribbean before getting derailed by his mother and stepfather deciding wanted to go on their honeymoon despite having married earlier in the year. Also staying on is the school cafeteria manager, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who along with Robert Downey, Jr. are the free spaces on your Oscar pool bets because she's an absolute lock to win), who is grieving her son's recent death in Vietnam.

Paul isn't liked by, well, mostly anyone because he's a strict disciplinarian who enforces the rules which puts him in bad favor with the school headmaster after flunking an alumni Senator's son, costing him a Princeton acceptance and the school a hefty donation. His students hate him for assigning a ton of reading for over the break as well.

After a few days, one of the other holdover's father arrives in a helicopter offering to take everyone to the ski resort he's taking his son to, but because Angus's folks can't be reached for permission, he can't leave so is again left behind with Paul and Mary. What follows is a fairly standard series of events of everyone getting on everyone else's nerves before eventually mellowing out and learning that everyone isn't so bad and have their reasons for how they are.

(It's ironic that major turning point in Paul's life involves a plagiarism scandal while attending Harvard when the unqualified diversity hire President of Harvard was forced from her position a few weeks earlier due to massive plagiarism in nearly everything she wrote being unearthed in the wake of a disastrous Congressional hearing appearance where she refused to condemn violent anti-Semitism at Harvard.)

With a not-particularly-original story, the weight of The Holdovers rests on the performances shoulders beginning with Giamatti's, which is why he's got a 50-50 shot (against Oppenheimer's Cillian Murphy) to win Best Actor. While it seems like another Giamatti role where he's a frustrated downtrodden lumpen sad sack bubbling with subsumed rage, he is able to make Paul a man worthy of empathy because most of his life's choices have been more reactive than proactive. While responsible for the consequences, he didn't wake up as a child and decide he would spend his life at war with the world. He's a smart man dealt a bad hand which he plays aggressively and loses most of the time.

Due to her size, Randolph has been cast in "obese loud black woman" roles in series like Only Murders In The Building and The Idol, so it's quite a change to see her able to tap into her surprisingly deep classically-trained theater background to make Mary a stoic, but sad woman whose job is to feed others children while her only child is gone. She gets a couple of showcase scenes where her quiet pain and resilience are front and center. She's not having any of Paul's nonsense, but it's not cliched.

If there's weak leg to the tripod, it's Sessa, who is making his film debut here after being found in auditions held at his school which was serving as the shooting location. With a background on stage, his performance is a tad big for such an intimate film and Payne should've dialed him back because acting on camera works best when the actor isn't ACTING for the back of the theater. Angus is supposed to be a bit of a spoiled brat with a hurt soul, but it just doesn't gel as well as it should.

The screenplay debut by David Hemmingson after a quarter-century of television writing and producing is a mixed bag owing to the stock tropes of the characters and situation. What lets it down at the end is the weak conclusion which feels both rushed and incomplete and thus unsatisfactory.

Payne, whose first two movies - Citizen Ruth and Election - I enjoyed and then seemed to avoid everything since (other than the first 15 minutes or so of The Descendants) nails the vibe of a movie made in 1971 with long interludes of period appropriate needle drops over lengthy takes of people walking in bleak snowy environs with flat cinematography reminiscent of Harold and Maude which also came out in 1971. It also results in the movie feeling somewhat sluggish and overlong at 2h 13m.

While not quite an unqualified success, The Holdovers is a refreshingly mature attempt at a character-driven drama where the special effects are the performances. 

As for the 4K presentation, due to the flat look, it doesn't really benefit from it beyond enhanced detail and color depth.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Peacock.)

Note how the trailer continues the retro pastiche by having a narrator!


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