Why The Holdovers is a love letter to how people used to speak in movies


Director: Alexander Payne (The Descendants)

Starring: Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Rating: ****1/2

When talk is never cheap, the value is priceless

There are no special effects to be seen in The Holdovers.

This is as analog a movie as ever you will encounter in the digital age.

The only location of note is an empty school at the height of the Christmas holidays. The number of people inside that abandoned educational facility is often just three, sometimes less.

A majority of the scenes contain nothing more than conversations. But, oh, what conversations they are.

For The Holdovers is, among other things, a love letter to how people used to speak in movies: always to each other, never at each other.

You will start this journey as a distant eavesdropper, and end it right up close to the characters, hanging on their every word.

What truly elevates The Holdovers to the highest rank of recent releases is its lead actor, Paul Giamatti.

There may be no better-spoken performer in the game right now than this guy, an unpretentiously assured orator whose way with words can lift listeners to dizzying heights, or cut them right down to size. All in the space of one line of dialogue.

Giamatti is truly at the peak of his oratory powers in The Holdovers, playing Paul Hunham, a good-naturedly gruff academic forced by his exasperated employers to take a holiday job the rest of his peers have avoided like the plague.

Paul teaches history at an elite boarding school in the middle of nowhere. Whenever Christmas comes around, one teacher must spend a week looking after those students unable to return home for the holiday season.

For this particular season – December of 1971, to be precise – Mr Hunham has just the one charge in his care. Angus (Dominic Sessa) is your archetypal snooty rich kid, albeit in a temporary state of shock that his parents don’t want him tagging along on their tropical island getaway.

Needless to say, Paul and Angus do not get along at all. Until they somehow do. Left with no choice but to open up and speak their minds, teacher and student form an unlikely alliance that will eventually break down each of their unappealing veneers.

The catalyst for this unforeseen – yet welcome – change is the only other resident for the week leading up to the New Year: the school’s cafeteria manager, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

A straight-talking, no-bulldust type, Mary has no time for polite niceties. She calls it as she sees it. And, indeed, feels it: in the year just gone, her son, a former student at the school, died in the Vietnam War.

Such a familiar set-up – which unapologetically charts a course towards familiar feel-good terrain – could come across as cravenly cliched and even sickly sweet in the wrong hands.

Not so here. With Giamatti striding forward with complete confidence – and relative rookies Sessa (a first-time actor) and Randolph (in the first decent role of her career) keeping pace every step of the way – The Holdovers tells its simple story with deep feeling, great humour and refreshing authenticity.

The Holdovers is in cinemas now



General release

A horror movie about a haunted swimming pool? Has the potential to make a splash, right? Well, that is the case for roughly half the running time of Night Swim, a stylish sparse chiller about an in-ground body of water with an ingrained taste for human bodies.

Wyatt Russell stars as Ray, a former baseball star whose career was cut short by a debilitating condition. Recuperation comes in the form of a fresh start: a new home for the family complete with an large backyard pool. However, little does anyone realise that this luxury liquefied rectangle is a portal to a deep underground reservoir of evil.

Unfortunately, Night Swim’s tale of H-2-woe evaporates well before the final act. Only so many demonic dunkings and hairy hands reaching out from filter spouts can be repeated until the whole thing gets rather old. Not that terrible. Just not that terrifying.



Selected cinemas

Nicolas Cage never stops making movies. On average, he finishes one every two-and-a-bit months. Sure, most of them are absolute tosh, but you can’t fault his work ethic. However, every once in a while, Cage will sight a ball of inspiration and hit the thing right out of the park.

Such is the case with Dream Scenario, an endearingly oddball black comedy in which Cage plays Paul Matthews, an obscure university professor who suddenly becomes the most recognisable man on the planet. The reason for his viral fame? Mr Matthews has the unexplained tendency to randomly appear inside people’s dreams. Paul doesn’t do anything during these sleep-time cameos. He is just, umm, there.

This is a strikingly original concept for a movie (the cult classic Being John Malkovich being the only real comparison worth making), and Cage does a great job keeping it anchored in a realm of relative plausibility. Recommended to jaded viewers who think they’ve seen it all.

Originally published as Paul Giamatti at the peak of his oratory powers in The Holdovers

Leave a Comment