The Holdovers, review: Paul Giamatti shines in Alexander Payne’s best film since Sideways

Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in the Holdovers
Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in the Holdovers - Courtesy of FOCUS FEATURES

Some films grow on you. But others you grow into, like an old pair of cords which out of the blue one morning are suddenly the cosiest, most comfortable thing you’ve ever owned.

When I saw The Holdovers at the London Film Festival in October, I loved it: it was hilarious, impeccably acted, and made in a period style that chimed so tunefully with its early 1970s setting, you half-believed it had actually been made back then, and spent the last half-century mouldering away in someone’s attic. And while I had mild reservations about the film’s nostalgic tone and seemingly modest remit, those vanished on a second viewing this week.

“If you truly want to understand the present, or yourself, you must begin in the past,” the curmudgeonly classics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) says, with an uncharacteristic flash of tenderness, as he and his student Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) peruse a museum case of Greek ceramics.

Neither Paul nor Angus has the first idea about how to navigate life beyond Barton, the draughty boarding school where both are now sullenly whiling away the winter break, in the absence of more welcoming hearths. The elder is a tweedy misanthrope, taking refuge in the ancient world while the modern one tears itself apart along racial, social and political lines. And the younger is a bright but volatile troublemaker who’s being threatened by his distant mother with a move to military academy, where a posting to Vietnam – it being late 1970 – presumably awaits.

In other words, where personal-cum-global existential crises are concerned, everything old is new again. And with its crackling photography and sound, and unfashionable camera pans, zooms and fades, The Holdovers playfully presents itself to us as a reassuring dispatch from cinema’s past.

What a profoundly and nourishingly funny film this is – easily Payne’s best since he last collaborated with Giamatti in their 2004 road comedy Sideways. Its characters are all realised in painstaking detail: as the school’s no-nonsense dinner lady Mary, Da’Vine Joy Randolph talks, carries herself and even smokes like she walked out of a documentary from the period. Yet there’s no visible trace of effort anywhere as the trio squabble their way through the Christmas holidays towards a familial rapport of a sort they’d each either lost or never previously felt.

You might think you’ve got the measure of the crotchety Hunham straight away, with his wonky eye, elbow-patched jacket and pipe permanently clamped between his teeth. But Giamatti isn’t playing a type, so much as a man who has taken refuge inside one in order to armour himself against the more exposing aspects of human existence. It’s a riotous but also slyly moving performance of a performance – and, along with Randolph’s, is rightly being talked about for awards.

David Hemingson’s screenplay gives our trio some individual showpiece put-downs: “What kind of a fascist hash foundry are you running here?” Paul splutters, when a waitress refuses to serve young Angus an alcoholic dessert. But it’s the less showy shared moments, as the three falteringly prepare themselves and each other to emerge from their semi-imposed hibernation, that give the film its lingering glow of wisdom and warmth.

15 cert, 133 min. In UK cinemas from Friday January 19

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