At Barton Academy, the fictional all-male enclave in director Alexander Payne’s engaging gray-skies comedy “The Holdovers,” there are stuffy, imperious, demanding professors ? and then there’s Paul Hunham, the ancient civilizations specialist with a sub-specialty in student humiliation.
To Hunham, these boys with the hair (the year is 1970, when nobody thought much about barbers) and the attitude are either “cretins,” “vulgarians” or worse. This lonely man, typically tipsy by noon and dyspeptic by nature, has drawn the short straw this school year, requiring him to spend his winter holiday babysitting the “Christmas orphans,” the boys stuck at Barton for one reason or another.
This year’s holdovers include Hunham’s only decent student, the gangly, forlorn Angus. Smart kid. But arrogant. Meaning: He’s insecure and hurting. How this student, this instructor and the school’s resident cook, Mary, spend a few chilly scenes of winter together provides the storyline of “The Holdovers.” As to why it’s both funny and touching, at its best, well, Payne has had a few fallow years since “The Descendants” (2011), but here he reunites with Paul Giamatti, who co-starred in Payne’s “Sideways” (2004). To understate it, they work pretty well together.
Straight off, the 1970s-ness hits us with jokey directness. First, it’s the lettering and design of the imaginary 1970-era Focus Features logo. Then comes the old-timey MPAA “R” rating classification on screen, with analog aural pops and scratches, one step removed from Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse.” Then, the slow fades and dissolves of the opening credits, recalling any number of movies of the era: “Harold and Maude,” “Brewster McCloud,” “The Paper Chase,” hundreds more.
Screenwriter David Hemingson’s conception of Hunham puts Giamatti’s character in the general vicinity of Professor Kingsfield, the fearsome adversary portrayed by Oscar-winning John Houseman in “The Paper Chase.” Hunham warms up later, which Kingsfield never did. But the first few scenes and a frustrating amount of the later ones settle for jokes and insults that are medium-grade at best.
Eventually, the script takes it easier and opens up to different possibilities and the idea that everyone’s in some sort of emotional crisis. The flinty, seen-it-all cook, played with powerful sadness by Da’Vine Joy Randolph had a son at Barton who graduated, went to Vietnam and didn’t survive. It’s Mary who periodically reminds Hunham that it being Christmas, he needn’t be his usual thoughtless self with an unhappy group of school-bound students.
Soon enough, all the boys get a reprieve from this un-holiday except Angus. At that point “The Holdovers” turns into a road trip odyssey for an unlikely trio. It’s an occasion for melancholy family matters, awkward reunions, stray reminders (when Hunham runs into an old classmate) of hidden disappointments — and a grateful acceptance of each other’s issues. Angus is played by the welcome and affecting newcomer Dominic Sessa; rarely have I seen more naturally convincing and relatable, slumpy body language in a movie about an 18-year-old.
A couple of things keep Payne’s latest from being all it should be. As with Payne’s “Nebraska” (2013), the script works on a sturdy premise, with a neat progression of events. But the wit comes and goes, along with some on-the-nose thesis lines. While people used the F-word in 1970 (I checked with all the finest boarding schools), screenwriter Hemingson settles once too often for routine profanity for a punchline. It feels somewhat at odds with the setting and the era, the way Hemingson writes, anyway. And while Randolph’s grieving character comes into deserved prominence as the story progresses, there’s a dimension to Mary missing on the page. Too often it’s up to the performer to fill in the details.
Payne and his design collaborators take the task of creating the right visual world for these people very seriously. I love how two movies opening this week, “The Holdovers” and “Priscilla,” begin with close-ups of cherished everyday products dear to their main characters. For the future Priscilla Presley, it’s Aqua Net hairspray; for Hunham, it’s a well-used, period-perfect tube of Preparation H.
Later in Payne’s film, in a scene scored partly by Herb Alpert’s Christmas album, the central characters drop by a holiday party thrown by a fellow Barton administrator (a wonderful, open-hearted Carrie Preston). Hunham dares to hope she harbor some feelings for him, despite, well, everything: the way he smells (a medical condition), and looks (an ocular condition) and walls himself off among his books.
Giamatti has worked related territory before, in “Sideways,” where the borderline-alcoholic he played poured his energies into frustrated literary ambitions. Is he too much? Too hammy? Some think so. Not me. He’s an unusually astute judge of scale, not to mention inflection and timing. When I first saw Giamatti on stage, back in the 1990s, his formidable technique already had everything a first-rate actor needed to do in all kinds of material. It’s a two-second moment, but early in “The Holdovers,” Hunham is dining with his resentful students after everybody else has left for home. The meanest of his charges mutters something appalling in the presence of Mary, all too used to being rendered invisible by the “rich, dumb” (Mary’s words) students of privilege.
Boom! Giamatti pounds the table with both hands, losing it for exactly one second. Then, in the next second, he delivers his rejoinder, his anger suddenly contained but still there. It’s our first glimpse of the honorable, principled man Hunham has lost sight of, until that moment. And no actor alive could handle it better than this one.
I wish the writing matched the actors’ level, or the mellow, beautiful evocations of time and place captured by cinematographer Eigil Bryld, who shot “The Holdovers” on 35 mm film. It’s probably too easy to romanticize early ‘70s Hollywood filmmaking; lots of forgettable or worse stuff came out then, along with the minor-key miracles that floored us, often quietly, without a lot of bombast or fuss, or endings that played like Hollywood endings. It wasn’t a pose when it worked; it felt like an authentic response to an uneasy world.
Payne’s film is a half-and-halfer, let’s call it: Half genuine character study, mixing its tones deftly and well, and half artificial ‘70s, with characters boiled down to one or two clearly delineated traits and preoccupations.
For a lot of people, the holidays aren’t easy, whether or not they have money, or love, or a sympathetic family or a religion. This movie’s religion, if it has one, is the Church of Performance, and Giamatti, Sessa, Randolph and company make it worth attending.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: R (for language, some drug use and brief sexual material)
Running time: 2:13
How to watch: Now in theaters