The Holdovers on Blu-ray

Although Barton Academy headmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman) thinks his ancient history professor Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a good teacher, he’s frustrated by the man’s inflexibility, Hunham having recently lost them a generous donation when he flunked a senator’s son.  The professor, who went to Barton himself as a boy, is disliked by both faculty and students, a curmudgeon who refuses to let anyone skate, so there is concern all around when he is tapped to be responsible for the students who have nowhere to go for Christmas, “The Holdovers.”

Laura's Review: B+

When director Alexander Payne ("Election," "The Descendants") received a series pilot script by TV writer David Hemingson ('Kitchen Confidential,' 'Whiskey Cavalier'), it was so close to what he’d had in mind for his next film, he asked him to turn it into a feature, specifically fashioning the lead character to reunite with his “Sideways” star.  He was also determined to make his film feel like it was made in the 1970 of the story’s setting, something not only immediately evident when the film begins, but even in its trailer (craftspeople, like cinematographer Eigil Bryld ("In Bruges"), used period lenses while sound mixer David J. Schwartz designed an analog soundtrack paying careful attention to room acoustics).

Shot entirely in Massachusetts, the nostalgia of the season comes through in an establishing shot as snow falls gently on a picture perfect New England village (Shelburne Falls and its flower bridge).  Cutting to Hunham’s apartment we glean much about the man surrounded by books, a bottle of booze on his desk, a manual typewriter beside it and a vintage tube of Preparation H prominently displayed on his bathroom sink.  It is the last day of school and while everyone is letting their students out early, Hunham is handing out failing grades on a recent test, only Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa, a senior drama student at Deerfield Academy where the film was actually shot) earning a B+.  When Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner, "The Black Phone") objects to his grade, Hunham surprisingly relents, offering a different make-up test that will require additional reading over the holiday break, but Tully messes up their chances by complaining that the homework will distract from his St. Kitts vacation, an unpopular move to say the least. 

As everyone departs, Hunham learns he will be left with Kountze, rich jock Jason Smith (Michael Provost) in a standoff with his dad over his long hair and first year kids Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan), a friendless Korean boy, and Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley), whose parents are away on an LDS mission.  Imagine everyone’s surprise when a raging Tully reenters with his suitcase, having just been informed by his mom that the trip to St. Kitts will now be a honeymoon for her and his new stepdad.  As the school is turning off heat in most of its buildings during the shut down, everyone must bunk in together in the school infirmary, their meals prepared by head cook Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, "Dolemite Is My Name") from what’s left in the larder.  Mary, who took the job at the school years ago in order to arrange for a good education for her son Curtis, is in mourning, the boy, a good student who couldn’t financially avoid the draft, recently killed in Vietnam.  She’s staying because Barton is where she feels closest to him.

We begin to see parallels between Hunham and Tully, who immediately gets into a battle with bully Kountze, yet shows kindness to lonely Park when the frightened boy wets his bed.  The only thing all five boys agree on is that they want to escape, something granted when Smith’s dad relents, arriving in his helicopter and offering to take them all on a ski holiday.  But once again, Tully’s parents fail him, Hunham unable to contact them to get permission for him to leave.  Now, the stage set, the film begins in earnest, three lonely people (plus maintenance man Danny (Naheem Garcia), carrying a torch for Mary) about to form a family.

Perhaps because of similarities they have yet to discover, Hunham and Tully are at each other’s throats, but Mary, whom Hunham joins in the evening for The Newlywed Game and whiskey, advises empathy for a boy alone at Christmas.  When Tully’s challenge to Hunham’s authority results in a dislocated shoulder, Hunham appeases him with a trip to the local town diner, where they both discover kindly school administrator Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston, TV's 'Claws') waitressing and are invited to her Christmas Eve party which Mary is already attending.  It proves fateful, reverberating into the film’s last act.  The three enjoy a Christmas ham the next day with Hunham’s last minute Charlie Brown Christmas tree and awkward gifts, but yet again, he’s encouraged by Mary to grant the boy’s real wish – a trip to Boston.  Using field trip funds, the three set off, Mary dropped off at her sister’s in Roxbury, while Hunham and Tully see the sights and learn about each other’s mutual trauma.  But Tully has a secret agenda and, in granting it, Hunham’s life is about to change drastically.

While there is never any doubt where this film is headed, it’s a lovely, moving story infused with holiday spirit about broken people making each other whole again.  Giamatti is perfection in a role custom tailored for him, making it possible to both see why Hunham is disliked while also empathizing with him.  Watch not only his expression, but his body language, when he begins to hope for romantic love only to realize he’d misread the cues.  Sessa is a real find and holds his own with the pros, a feral looking, gawky young man whose abrasive tendencies are smoothed over given a little kindness.   Joy Randolph is their grounding anchor, yet has her own moment of intense need which is immediately met.  Carrie Preston proves a secret weapon, her perky, open-armed warmth just what is needed to lift spirits.

“The Holdovers” is a warm hug of a throwback bound to become a Christmas classic.     

The Blu-ray:

Payne’s 70’s aesthetic remains in a sharp transfer that is able to be subtitled in English for the deaf and hard of hearing, French or Spanish (the movie is also made available in DVD and digital format).  Deleted scenes are introduced by Payne with an amusing apology stating that the screenplay was so tight, there was actually little to cut from the film and indeed, the four brief snippets here illustrate that.  We see Angus and the other holdovers arriving in the infirmary and briefly checking out the new surroundings; Hunham marching Angus out of the bowling alley as the kid protests and Hunham observing Angus in his sleep before the two, along with Mary Lamb, drive back from Boston, a scene we are told was cut as it would have required too many additional fx to add snow.  The last deleted scene harkens back to the beginning, where the colleague who fibbed his way out of holdover duty now makes snarky comments about Hunham’s departure while ironically revealing it is he who will be taking over the remainder of his ancient history class.

An alternate ending is really another deleted scene which observes Mary continuing on with her duties after Hunham’s departure, a more wistful ending than the hopeful new beginnings Payne decided on.

There are two other special features, one, in which cast members all say wonderful things about one another that actually seem truthful (and in which we learn Hepner had to be taught how to smoke a joint) and another about what it is like to work with Payne, the latter falling somewhere between more cast and crew kudos and a making of featurette.  Payne has high praise for his star who, we learn, once mesmerized an audience literally reading from the Omaha phone book and who manages to complete a take while his director can barely suppress his laughter a few feet away.  While everyone praises their coworkers, it appears to be justified, the experience as captured revealing a joyful set led by a real mensch.  Production designer Ryan Warren Smith has some interesting insights, finding Massachusetts a great place to find locations with the requisite period characteristics, and laudatory words for set decorator Marcus Wittman, who even filled Hunham’s desk drawers with appropriate objects to help Giamatti stay in character.  Payne lets on that a scene ostensibly taking place on Boston Common’s Frog Pond was actually shot at a Worcester skating rink about an hour west of Boston.  And if you’ve ever wondered who Tolf Hansom is, a name that has apparently appeared in every one of Payne’s films, you will find out here. 

Robin's Review: B

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment releases "The Holdovers" on blu-ray and DVD on 1/2/24.