The Holdovers (2023)
The Holdovers (2023)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 2 hrs. 13 min.

Release Date: November 10th, 2023 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Alexander Payne Actors: Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Brady Hepner, Andrew Garman, Darby Lee-Stack




wouldn’t have asked if it weren’t an emergency.” As winter break arrives at a New England boarding school in 1970, curmudgeonly teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is asked to stay over with four poor students who must be held at the institution during the holidays. At Barton Academy, he’s one of the few instructors who doesn’t bend to the will of persuasion; he notoriously failed the son of a senator, causing a Princeton acceptance to become withdrawn, much to the chagrin of the headmaster, who has long since recognized the importance of kowtowing to political influences. But not Hunham; he’s so harsh, in fact, that he assigns homework on the very last day of class (December 17th). “At least pretend to be a human being. Please. It’s Christmas.”

At the last minute, young Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) also joins the four holdovers – Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner), Jason Smith (Michael Provost), Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley), and Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan) – who, under the supervision of Hunham, are treated as if in detention or in some other form of punishment, rather than for the simple misfortune of having nowhere else to go (they’re even allotted outdoor time for exercise – in the freezing cold). And due to the heat getting turned off, they’re all confined to residing in the infirmary. The only other resident is cafeteria employee Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose son died in Vietnam, leaving her to grieve in modest solitude.

“They’ve had it easy their whole lives.” It’s difficult not to immediately compare the setup to “The Breakfast Club,” as a ragtag group of disparate youths steadily learn about one another, become friends (or rivals), and figure out how to cope with their tedious situation. But it quickly deviates from that formula when Tully becomes the central student, while Hunham isn’t exactly the dictatorial warden he seems to be at first; rather, he’s a fellow prisoner of sorts, struggling with his own punishment – and then, perhaps, a father figure (who must take some lessons from Tully to be more free-thinking and optimistic, reminding on rare occasion of “Scent of a Woman”). Mary also becomes something of a surrogate mother, providing a touch of guidance and as the glue to keep the trio’s sanity in check as they contend with the gloom of being alone during a festive period.

Despite a general pleasantness in the camaraderie, the bonding (and revelations about their unexpected similarities), and the unlike characters learning to cooperate through various minimal personal dramas, “The Holdovers” is plagued by a distinct triviality; the majority of the scenes are small, inconsequential misadventures. They steadily build up the characters, but they’re terribly quiet, unassuming, unstimulating episodes. Even montages are unusually muted, tranquil affairs, as if no sequence dares to rile up the audience or show them something new. It’s not without some emotion, but the bulk of this picture is painfully uneventful. It’s more of an observation than a story, as if director Alexander Payne doesn’t want to impart his own perspective on these personas, merely allowing inoffensive, routine filmic events to transpire around them.

Although a handful of these nominal scenarios are mildly amusing and sweet, it’s not enough to make this a worthwhile movie; it’s all just too slight to be poignant or memorable (and far from cinematic). “Before you dismiss something as boring or irrelevant …” begins Hunham in a sentence that ironically prefaces the bulk of this tale (a stodgy take on “Dead Poets Society”), which stays lightly cordial throughout, but oddly manages never to rise to the level of entertaining – even with its briefly enjoyable climax (but extremely longwinded denouement to match the rest of the film). The wit and the warmth just can’t grapple with the overbearing runtime.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10