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Dan Webster reviews "The Holdovers"

The Holdovers, Miramax/CAA Media Finance/Focus Features, 2023.
Film still of Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers (2023).


In his career, Paul Giamatti has been cast in a variety of roles. From his star-making turns in American Splendor and Sideways to his performance as the title character in the HBO miniseries John Adams and as a U.S. Attorney in the Showtime series Billions, Giamatti has forged a career that depends more on force of personality than actual talent.

Not that Giamatti lacks talent, mind you. Quite the opposite. It’s just that given the energy implicit in his many performances over his three-decade career, the force—and sameness—of his personality is more noticeable than his ability to play a range of characters boasting different temperaments.

Take Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, for example. Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a demanding teacher of ancient history at the Barton Academy, an effete New England prep school. What kind of school? The kind that coddles its all-boys, members-of-the-patrician-class student body as they head toward the kind of presumed social success expected of the privileged.

Wait, did I use the term “coddled?” Well, in most cases, that’s certainly true. But not in Paul’s classes. As a man who admits that he finds the world "a bitter and complicated place,” Paul isn’t above calling his students “fêted layabouts.” And while handing back exam results peppered with Ds and Fs, he expresses no sense of surprise because, as he tells them, during the semester “even with my ocular limitations I witness firsthand your glazed, uncomprehending expressions.”

He holds true to this stance even when implored by his headmaster, himself a former student of Paul’s, to go easy on one particular dim student whose father is a big donor. Paul refuses, which is at least one reason why he is “asked”—and I say that in quotes—to spend his Christmas holiday at the school where he will be tasked with supervising those students who, for whatever reason, have nowhere else to go.

They, of course are the “holdovers” of the film’s title.

There are other reasons, too, for Paul to be assigned such babysitting duties. For one, he has no other family, no other obligations. More to the point, though, as one of the students tells him, “Most of the kids dislike you, pretty much hate you. Teachers, too. You know that, right?”

That particular student, by the way, is Angus (played by newcomer Dominic Sessa). He’s one of Paul’s few students of promise and, as it turns out, the character who over the course of the film becomes Paul’s main foil. Angus, as we discover, has his own problems. Besides being perpetually thrown out of one school after the next, his father has died and his mother—intent on spending time with the new man in her life—has, at the last moment, doomed Angus to holdover status with the others.

None of this makes the prospect for a happy holiday seem likely, especially since Paul makes the boys toe a strict line, from early morning exercise to enforced library study time. Some sort of rebellion is bound to occur.

Before than can develop, though, screenwriter David Hemingson’s script takes a twist. And soon the holdovers number only three: Paul, Angus and Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the school’s kitchen manager and cook and the mother of a former Barton student recently killed in Vietnam.

The fact that both Paul and Angus are White and Mary is Black gives director Payne—by way of Hemingson—the opportunity to make larger social statements, as he has in the past—most notably in 1996’s Citizen Ruth, 1999’s Election and 2011’s The Descendants. Here, the statements range from class snobbery to parental neglect, White privilege to outright racism.

Despite Payne’s penchant for commentary, The Holdovers never stoops to simple dogma. Each of the three characters feels real, even if the film settles for a fairly predictable ending. Randolph’s Mary feels particularly authentic: a grieving mother with one hand on a whisky bottle, the other a cigarette.

As for Giamatti, he imbues Paul with the same kind of energy and qualities he has to so many other characters: a man who’s too smart for his own good, yet vulnerable enough in the end to realize it.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for