“A period movie’s supposed to be a horse and buggy,” laughs The Holdovers star Paul Giamatti, reflecting on the 1970s’ setting of the new comedy. “But I was like, ‘Not this, which I remember vividly.’ So that was weird.”
The Holdovers reunites Giamatti with Sideways director Alexander Payne and it refreshingly defies any naysayers who suggest that Hollywood doesn’t make movies like is used to. In fact, The Holdovers proves that they indeed do make movies just like Hollywood did when films like Harold and Maude, The Godfather, Klute, and The Last Picture Show were the norm rather than the exception to the rule. Beyond the perfect period settings in which Giamatti plays curmudgeonly teacher Paul Hunham at an all-boys private school, there’s a sense of humour, a sharpness, and a down-to-earth lived in quality to the characters that contemporary Hollywood too rarely delivers. If the Christmas season offers a time for familiar comforts, then The Holdovers is destined to become the next holiday classic because it delivers something warm and reassuring, but refreshingly new.
The film, which recently earned three Golden Globe nominations including Best Picture (Comedy) among other accolades this season, lets Giamatti draw upon his own experience at prep school. “There was something so familiar about this stuff that I was excited to do it,” Giamatti says during a virtual press conference. “I grew up around a lot of people like this [character], so it was kind of like, ‘Ooh, this’ll be fun.’ I can just pull on this deep well of memories.”
Giamatti gives the performance of his career as Hunham, a hard-ass with a heart of gold who takes a special interest in wise-cracking student Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa, who scored the part from over 800 boys scouted for the role) when he’s tasked with supervising the boys who aren’t going home for Christmas. It’s a perfect fit for Giamatti’s deadpan humour as Hunham delivers one wry zinger after another. He gleefully admonishes his students while educating them with references that fly over the heads. “He was a lot of fun to play,” admits Giamatti. “He takes a certain delicious pleasure in coming up with the most elaborate insults he can come up with, like it was a free song for him that he could put somebody down in such an elaborate way. He’s pleased with his own intelligence and playing around with his own intelligence, so that was very fun.”
Payne, meanwhile, sees The Holdovers as a natural extension of the films he’s been making throughout his career, like Sideways, The Descendants, and the black-and-white Nebraska. “There’s a way in which I’ve been trying to make ’70s movies, or a modern extension of ’70s movies, my whole career,” says Payne, whose films, on the surface, resemble conventional Hollywood fare but offer a depth of character that harkens back to the classics. “For some reason, once the script was finished, and of course we had set it in 1971, and I was preparing to direct it, at some moment I just thought, well, wouldn’t it be cool to pull off a parlour trick of making it, to some degree, look and sound like a movie made back then?”
Retro credits, mono sound, and old-school microphones help transport viewers back to the look and sound of the ’70s. Payne adds that shooting on location, rather than on sets for the prestigious prep school, make Hunham’s New England Barton Academy seem appropriately archaic with its wood paneling and stodgy eye for tradition.
Payne adds that he encouraged writer David Hemingson to tinker with his script, which was originally a series pilot, and develop story points that would complement the 1970s’ setting. The Vietnam War, for example, adds an emotional stake to the humour with the storyline involving Barton’s cafeteria supervisor, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who recently picked up Outstanding Supporting Performance from the Toronto Film Critics Association). Mary finds herself celebrating Christmas alone for the first time having just lost her son to the war, caring for boys whose privilege offers them opportunities her son never got. As Paul, Angus, and Mary create a surrogate family at Barton—an Island of Misfit Toys scenario, perhaps—they share a kinship that evokes the true meaning of Christmas: togetherness, kindness, and compassion.
Randolph matches Giamatti’s comedic chops beat for beat, but lends the film its heart when Mary confronts the loss of her son and gifts his baby clothes to her sister, who is expecting her first child. “Part of what attracted me to this project was that this can be an anthem for people in the holiday season that are going through a tough time,” says Randolph. “Can you imagine being depressed and sad and you have to watch, like, Jingle All the Way? It’s more insult to injury,” she laughs.
But she adds that the timing for The Holdovers might prove cathartic to audiences who seek a little comfort with their holiday viewing, but don’t want to sugar coat life as they know it. “With what’s going on in the world, I think it’s perfect timing, being, you know, giving time.”
“For a movie with empathy,” adds Giamatti.
“We have a lot of holiday movies that are wrapped in a really nice shiny red bow. Or maybe there’s a third act that ends perfectly,” says Randolph. The fallibility of the characters, and the hard knocks they face, will resonate more authentically than a tacked-on happy ending would, therefore making The Holdovers worthy viewing for audiences considering how they might reform in the New Year.
“They’ve all got to come to this place where something’s gonna get over or they’re going to heal something or connect about something,” adds Giamatti. “I feel like underneath all of it, there’s a little bit of that classic Christmas story thing.”