****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Paul Giamatti, Da'vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston
written by David Hemingson
directed by Alexander Payne
by Walter Chaw It was never like this, but it's how I remember it: snow on the ground, ice in patches, a well-appointed office wall-to-wall with books, a fireplace, and me and a classmate, a dear friend, doing an independent study with my favourite professor. I have looked my whole life for my people. I think sometimes they are the fragments I shore against my ruins, that thing T.S. Eliot said to describe the whole of Western civilization informing his writing--but thinking of them as fragments seems wrong. Just as how their spark in my life is not the holding me up but the giving me a reason to want to persist. It would be so much easier not to. I saw an old friend the other day, and he told a story about how I said something to him once that aided him when he was at his lowest point. I didn't remember saying it, though I remembered the feeling of fear I had for him at the time and was moved to tears that I had helped him as he had so often helped me. You can't really know the wake you leave behind as you go. My favourite poem is William Wordsworth's "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey", particularly for how it speaks of the "best portion of a man's life, his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love." This line has meant different things to me at different times in my life. I wonder what it means to me now.
Alexander Payne's The Holdovers is a film, like Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys, that exists in the specific time and place in my mind where I was the saddest, a place I couldn't wait to leave and to which I wish, with all my heart, to return. Nostalgia is an addictive illness; that's just one of its peculiarities. I have everything I ever wanted--and still, there's this pull to a period in my life where nothing was certain for me, when I had done nothing, accomplished nothing. I was so miserable and lonesome, although I had a mentor who believed in me and friends who were worried about me, and I was in the act of becoming who I was going to be. I had potential then. I don't have that anymore. I miss it. In The Holdovers, Mr. Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a teacher of classics at exclusive prep school Barton Academy. His hands sweat too much and he smells of fish and everyone thinks he's an asshole. He certainly appears to be. They call him "walleye" because he has a lazy eye; they are vicious to Mr. Hunham, and, in return, he gives his students the grades they deserve. For the crime of fairness, Mr. Hunham is sentenced to spend the holiday break with the "holdovers," those whose families aren't taking them back, so they must stay there to burden Mr. Hunham with their company. It's like a John Irving novel, but these are even less Princes of Maine and Kings of New England.
An act of good fortune springs all but one of the boys a couple of days in. The remaining holdover is spindly, angry, potentially brilliant Angus (Dominic Sessa), whose resentful mother (Gillian Vigman) and new stepfather (Tate Donovan) are unreachable when their permission is needed to free him. We share his frustration. It's all terribly unfair. For the last ten days or so of Mr. Hunham's oubliette in empty Barton, it's just him, Angus, and cafeteria lady Mary (Da'vine Joy Randolph), who actually has somewhere to go but is so broken by the death of her son in Vietnam that she's frozen in place. They're all frozen in place. The first thing The Holdovers is about is escape: from any number of proximate things, of course, but ultimately from the pasts that suspend this trio in various states of arrest. It is a film that holds a totemic, fetishistic sway over me because it draws a line directly from me now to me then, floated on tenterhooks to the frame of my life. And it is about the tethers that tie Mr. Hunham, Angus, and Mary to the things they've lost that they can never recover. There is an irresolvable irony there I can't begin to unravel. I can't even find a finger-hold in a surface that shifts underneath me, as I am now more Mr. Hunham than Angus: a professor, swallowed by self-loathing, finished without the sense to lie down. But this is what I know: The Holdovers, whatever its prickliness and depictions of the little cruelties of adolescence and well-past-middle-age, is generous, observant, and eminently kind. It says that however late it is, there is still time to make a difference in a kid's life. There's still time.
Mr. Hunham's pretty colleague, Ms. Crane (Carrie Preston), invites him to her annual Christmas party, and after some goading, he calls it a "field trip" and packs Angus and Mary into his car. He gets a peck on the cheek under the mistletoe from Ms. Crane and, still flushed, tells her that he teaches because he "wanted to make a difference. I used to think I could prepare them for the world, even a little. Provide standards and grounding... But the world doesn't make sense anymore." He's on that roll where we fit our needle into our favourite groove: "The rich don't give a shit, poor kids are cannon fodder. Integrity is a punchline. Trust is just a name on a bank." She says that if everything he says is true, "Now is when they need someone like you." It's a gut-punch, one of a bouquet of them sprinkled throughout the picture. Payne ends Mr. Hunham's nice moment with a record scratch--a literal one, as Mary tries to find a track on an Artie Shaw record that her dead son used to love. She makes a bit of an ass of herself. She drinks too much. In the other room, Mr. Hunham learns that Ms. Crane's kindness is the kind a beautiful woman shows to someone she could never imagine as a romantic partner. It's not false; it's horrible in its purity. And in a matter of a few seconds of screentime, Payne absolutely lays me to waste. It comes at about the halfway point of the movie, and the rest will be either a misery exhibition or the first inklings of an escape route for these people who deserve more than the shackles and anchors dragging behind them at the bottom of their ocean. One way becomes like how a few of Payne's other films become: mean, mocking. The other leads to a rare and gratifying humanism.
The ways we hurt each other are detailed so sharply in The Holdovers: Angus's childish barbs masquerading as questions ("You've never had sex, have you?" and, "Which eye should I look at--all the kids wonder, you know?"); Mr. Hunham's wielding of whatever institutional power he has, however slight, to maintain an illusion of control; Mary's tippling, which only acidifies her broadsides, even as it's meant to blunt the violence of her mourning. The ways we come together are depicted just as elegantly. Angus coerces Mr. Hunham into letting him visit his birth father (Stephen Thorne), who he'd claimed to be dead, in the asylum where he's been committed. As the father is led in, groggy and uncertain, he spots Angus and calls him "sweetheart." I thought the cruel gag would be that his father has mistaken him for someone else. It would be an easy rug-pull, as well as the variety of punchline I think of Payne making in films like About Schmidt (which I liked overall) and, especially, a movie that mistakes its high concept for deep thought, downsizing (which I didn't like it at all). But no, Angus's father does recognize him and calls his big son "sweetheart," and I'm devastated again. It was never like this, but it's how I remember it: The ideas flowed cleanly and honestly, and I was inspired and believed for the only and last time in my life that I might be special in the ways I suspected I was special, and seen for all my imperfections both obvious and secret and nevertheless found worthy in the balance. Mr. Hunham saves Angus in the end from institutional bureaucracies and pressures put upon him by Angus's angry parents. He doesn't tell Angus about what he sacrifices for him, but he does tell him which eye to look at when Angus is speaking to him. This is Mr. Hunham rediscovering his dignity and purpose, and it is Payne delivering his masterpiece the eighth time out with a film that is very simply about the possibility you get more than one chance to be important in someone else's life--and how that is, in the end, all in all.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Universal brings The Holdovers to Blu-ray a mere seven weeks after it opened in North American movie theatres. The 1080p image, pillarboxed at 1.66:1, is exceedingly filmlike despite the picture having been shot digitally with the ARRI Alexa Mini; director Alexander Payne and DP Eigil Bryld layer in a very convincing faux-grain structure (it moves like the real thing), and push the old-movie affectations hard at the beginning with not only retro studio logos but also the kind of white speckling you might see on a revival print. The goal, according to interviews with Bryld, was to make something that felt not like a period piece set in the '70s but like an artifact from that decade--hence the softer contrasts and earthy palette, which lose none of their Hal Ashby flavour or effectiveness on the small screen. There's an elephant in the room, of course: the absence of a UHD release, which underscores Universal's general fumbling of this born sleeper.* Here's a studio coming off the second-highest-grossing R-rated movie in history (Oppenheimer), failing to recognize the potential of another film aimed at grown-ups--and one with seasonal appeal, at that--in rushing it onto the home market.
When I saw The Holdovers was viewable online in 4K with HDR, I decided to do a little A/B comparison with the Blu-ray. I suspected the picture, because it was finished in 2K, wouldn't look much more detailed in 2160p, and I wondered if its pastel shadows and gauzy highlights would only resist the benefits of high dynamic range. Obviously, this isn't ideal, pitting a disc against a stream, but I was nevertheless caught off guard by the latter's comparatively aggressive aquatic colour grade, and I don't think its denser black levels are necessarily a virtue. Ultimately, should no physical 4K edition come to pass, I can't say this Blu-ray left me feeling deprived. It's lovely. That goes for the audio as well, a 3.0 (left, centre, right) mix presented in DTS-HD MA. It has a really rich, warm timbre, along with some of the most persuasive acoustics I've ever heard at home: You feel the school's history just from the way voices interact with Barton Academy's oak-lined caverns, all of mildew and chalk-dust. Bass is surprisingly sturdy even in the absence of a dedicated LFE channel. This isn't Titanic's Atmos remix, natch, though it may do more with less.
A somewhat stingy Collector's Edition, the platter includes a host of video-based extras, starting with a six-minute block of four "Deleted Scenes" that Payne apologizes for in an introductory text, calling them "meagre" and "shoe leather" because David Hemingson's screenplay was so tightly constructed that barely anything hit the cutting-room floor. Indeed, not much to see here, but the return of the catty teachers from the beginning of the film is missed for the sake of symmetry. While a separate "Alternate Ending" (2 mins.) gives Mary the formal send-off she's denied in the movie proper, Payne is probably correct when he writes that it was "rhythmically unnecessary." "The Cast" (11 mins.) is a featurette focused on the actors--Paul Giamatti ("This guy can make even bad dialogue work," says Payne, who once tested his theory by having Giamatti literally perform the Omaha phone book) and Dominic Sessa, in particular. Sessa, who sits on a couch with his teenage co-stars in an endearingly egalitarian gesture, was an actual high-school senior where they were shooting, a drama kid who'd never acted in front of a camera before. He says that he and Giamatti bonded over shopping for books. (Art imitating life.) If there's a shortcoming to the piece, it's that the spotlight is lopsided, scarcely giving second-billed Da'vine Joy Randolph more attention than the bit players who round out the cast. Lastly, "Working with Alexander" (9 mins.) sees above- and below-the-line talent saluting the captain of the S.S. Holdovers, many of them longtime collaborators. Some who aren't present and accounted for, such as Bryld and set decorator Markus Wittman, are singled out for their unique dedication to fulfilling Payne's vision.
In the U.S., a digital code for and--believe it or not--a DVD of The Holdovers are bundled with the Blu-ray.
134 minutes; R; 1.85:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 3.0 DTS-HD MA, English DVS 2.0, French DTS 3.0, Spanish DTS 3.0; English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-50 + DVD-9; Region-free; Universal