Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Trying to freshen an old formula


Paul Hunham might be the most hated teacher at Barton Academy, the fictional New England prep school where much of The Holdovers takes place. Caustic with his students, many of whom he regards as certifiable idiots, Hunham could be the subject of a movie entitled, "Good Riddance, Mr Chips" -- at least as far as most of Barton's students are concerned. 
  Director Alexander Payne focuses The Holdovers on one of Hunhum's dreariest assignments; he's asked to supervise students who, for various reasons, must remain at Barton during Christmas break. 
  Staying at the school when everyone else is enjoying family and friends seems like punishment for those who must endure reduced heat at the school, less-than-festive meals, and the notion that elsewhere great times are unfolding.
   In part, The Holdovers functions as a showcase for Paul Giamatti, who brings a dose of Scrooge to the holiday season, presuming Scrooge had been interested in classical education and the Peloponnesian Wars. Giamatti, who starred in Payne's Sideways, wrings plenty of bitterness from a role that feeds him a steady, if slightly repetitive, stream of nasty dialogue.
   Although a group of boys begins the Christmas break under Hunham's care,  David Hemingson's screenplay contrives to reduce their number to one (Dominic Sessa). Sessa's Angus Tully becomes Barton's last abandoned student. His mother and new stepfather want to spend their holiday vacation alone. 
   Angus stews in his own bitterness, a bright kid who's willing to stand-up to Hunham and who, we know, from the outset eventually will establish a relationship with a teacher who needs to have his humanity revived -- at least partially.
    The school's cook (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) also remains at Barton. Randolph provides deeply felt support as a woman burdened by the loss of her son -- one of the school's few Black students -- to the Vietnam War. The story takes place during the 1970s.
     Payne spices a predictable arc with attempts at variety, a Christmas party thrown by one of the school's employees (Carrie Preston) and a trip to Boston that Angus wants to make to escape the stir-crazy Barton confines, for example.
      Credit Payne with keeping the movie from choking on Christmas corn. He tempers a happily-ever-after ending with revelations about Hunham, whose life has sad underpinnings that raise issues about rich preppie entitlement.
       Although there's plenty to enjoy here, The Holdovers suffers because of a length (two hours and 13 minutes) that seems excessive considering that some of the scenes feel over-extended and the movie, like its characters, sometimes seems to be looking for things to do rather than unfolding organically.
         Still, Giamatti and Sessa hold up their end of the bargain, and Randolph brings a credible sense of pragmatism to a role that easily could have become a cliche. She shows how much emotional dimension a supporting actor can add to a narrowly focused movie that tells a story that, for Angus, may become an oft-told anecdote in his successfully evolving life.

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