Paul Giamatti gives the performance of his career in The Holdovers. Let’s start this review by giving that statement the context that Giamatti deserves. From his quick-witted winnoisseur Miles in Sideways, which seemed like an unsurpassable career-high for its humorously heartfelt portrait of a middle aged man at a crossroads, Giamatti already had one of the great performances in American comedy under his belt. Add to this résumé his offbeat artist in American Splendor, the underdog boxing couch in Cinderella Man, and the best CanLit character ever in Barney’s Version, and one can nearly make a fist with knock-out work before mentioning John Adams, Cosmopolis, Dead Souls, Private Life, and a career of memorable character roles. If Miles or Barney seem like Giamatti at his crotchety best, then Professor Paul Hunnam, his latest creation, is a perfectly deadpan yet heartfelt curmudgeon that builds upon every best ingredient of the actor’s résumé.
The Barton Boys
The Holdovers whisks audiences back to 1971 where Giamatti’s delightfully anachronistic Professor Hunnam holds court an elite boarding school. A former Barton Boy himself, Hunnam upholds what he feels are the highest standards for high education. His students, however, think he’s a boring hard-ass prick who smells like fish. He’s nobody’s favourite teacher, and he doesn’t aspire to be. Case in point: It’s the last day before Christmas holidays and Hunnam returns a load of exams with pitiable grades. He makes a peace offering for a make-up exam, provided the boys take on extra reading over holidays.
The class dissident, Angus (Dominic Sessa), gets more than he bargained for, though. Calling bullshit on Hunnam’s last-minute assignment inspires the teacher to can the make-up test. To make matters worse, Angus’s mom cans their plans for Christmas vacation (or, rather, her plans to include him). Instead, Angus will join the handful of boys who aren’t going home for the holidays. And this year, to their dismay and his, Hunnam’s stuck playing Santa.
Hunnam sees something of himself in the rebellious, outspoken Angus, though. For one, he’s the only student who grasps the dry witticisms and literary references with which Hunnam zings his pupils. Angus also has a whiff of wasted potential, which Hunnam recognizes all too well. It’s through Giamatti’s performance that one sees the years put to waste rotting in the professor’s gut. The way he moves, the way he holds himself, the way he lashes impulsively—it isn’t easy for Hunnam to see boys repeat his mistakes. That’s also what makes the character so warm and likable. Beneath Hunnam’s jowls and lazy eye is a heart of gold that’s never applied itself.
Coming-of-Age for All Ages
Hunnam and Angus spend the holidays enjoying company as mutual foils. However, in the tradition of all good holiday movies, The Holdovers sees a strong teacher-student relationship develop. The Yuletide spirit strikes these Barton boys well. Each exercise in pushing buttons creates an opportunity for growth. Take Paul away from his stuffy old books and he’s actually a great teacher. Bring Angus outside the classroom, meanwhile, and Paul sees what a bright student he is. Unlike the entitled brats who populate Barton, Angus genuinely has potential and knows the value of being at this school.
The latter point hits home especially hard through the third party in The Holdovers’ Christmas vacation. Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) manages the cafeteria and was the mother to a former Barton boy. This Christmas is the first she’s spending without her son, who was killed in Vietnam. Hunnam learns the story of Mary’s son, whom he taught, over whiskies and reruns of The Newlywed Game. Mary admits that her boy had everything going for him—she just couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he enlisted with hopes of being able to enroll as a veteran upon return. Mary’s pain inspires Paul to give some tough love to Angus when needed, while the cook’s desire to deliver a home-cooked Christmas for the well-to-do student gifts both men with a reality check to make the most of the time—and relationships—they have. Randolph continues her streak of stealing every film in which she appears. Mary can match Hunnam tit-for-tat in the zinger department, but Randolph also gives The Holdovers its heart.
The Next Great American Comedy
The screenplay by David Hemingson offers three rich characters which each actor then takes to another level. The film leaves the characters room to grow and has a fine eye for the quotidian, like the pleasure of sharing a good meal, and a wicked sense of humour to accentuate every dramatic beat. (Every Oscar party shall serve cherries jubilee, Holdovers-style next year.)
The Holdovers is an unabashedly old-school stock of Hollywood comedy. It evokes the best of Hal Ashby with the belly laughs of a John Candy film. Professor Hunnam, perhaps, is the Uncle Buck of the cinematic literati. As played by Giamatti, he’s a pompous windbag who always has a useless fact up his pipe and a cheeky remark at the ready, yet the actor delivers even the deadliest of Hunnam’s zingers without a trace of malice. Some of the toughest teachers can also be the best ones.
Giamatti’s performance reminds a viewer of his best work while proving that he’s one of the best actors in the medium. He finds the perfect meeting point between character actor and star here, creating a fallible anti-hero who could easily be repulsive on the page and yet is immediately endearing on screen. In his hands, Professor Paul Hunnam delivers his first true master class. This performance is one for the books.