Home » ‘The Holdovers’ Is Alexander Payne’s Best Movie in More Than a Decade

‘The Holdovers’ Is Alexander Payne’s Best Movie in More Than a Decade

TORONTO, Canada—There’s no comprehending the present without understanding the past, and yet yesterday need not dictate today or tomorrow—a dynamic that stands at the heart of The Holdovers, ’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the Black cafeteria manager who’s grieving the death of her son Curtis, a Barton alum who—because he couldn’t afford college like his affluent classmates—joined the military and was shipped off to Vietnam.

Trapped together, the trio are wracked by bitterness over their sorry lots in life and resentment of those who benefit from unfair advantages. Hunham’s belief that Tully is another entitled jerk inspires him to be unduly nasty, just as Tully’s opinion of his teacher as a ball-busting creep blinds him, at least at first, to the adult’s suffering. Yet it’s not long before their frostiness thaws, thanks to their recognition that they’re bonded by loss, lonesomeness, and anger. Beginning with Tully’s separated shoulder (courtesy of an accident in an under-construction gym), their feelings gradually mature into respect and, then, affection. Along with bereft Mary, whose pain is impossible to miss, they transform into a makeshift familial unit, replete with evenings spent watching The Newlywed Show and home-cooked Christmas dinners the likes of which Tully has never experienced.

A night out at a bar, a Christmas party full of romantic potential (some realized, some thwarted), and a subsequent trip to Boston (where Tully plans to reconnect with his birth father) are all incidents that allow these wayward souls to better see, and sympathize with, each other. David Hemingson’s script mines those and additional scenarios for consistent laughs, whether it’s Tully behaving like an incorrigible wiseass or Hunham wielding his imposing vocabulary for choice insults like chiding Tully for his “hormonal vulgarism.” The film is at once somber and jokey, as when Hunham reveals the violent origins of his youthful disgrace to the kid in a Beantown liquor store and the proprietor, handing Hunham his bottle of purchased booze, retorts, “There ya go, killah.”

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers.

Seacia Pavao/Focus Features

Through a series of comedic misadventures and heart-to-hearts, the two strike up a confidential pact (“entre nous”), and though the film’s trajectory is never truly in doubt, its cast is so good—Giamatti, charismatically grumpy, arrogant and sad; Sessa, charmingly rude and rebellious; and Randolph, movingly bereaved and kind—that any mild predictability proves inconsequential. The Holdovers draws its characters in distinctive, nuanced lines, even as it makes sure to keep them emotional and physical messes. It’s a constant pleasure to spend time in their company, laughing at their sharp-tongued craziness, empathizing with their relatable anguish, and celebrating their attempts to find a way to let go of the hang-ups that hold them back.

Its sentimentality expertly balanced by its humor, The Holdovers is a story about the lies we tell ourselves (for good and ill) and the reality of our not-so-dissimilar human conditions. Moreover, both looking forward and behind, it’s a film that grasps that everything has been done before and that absolutely nothing is set in stone, and that what bolsters and binds us most of all is compassion for ourselves, each other, and the histories we can never truly escape and are always free to leave behind.

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September 2023