Saturday, December 16, 2023

The Holdovers

Saturdays are usually "Take Out the Trash" Day. Not today. This one is a gem, not to be tossed aside.

A Very Special After-School Special

Today's Lesson is the Battle Between the Cock-eyed and the Philistines.

Paul Hunnan (Paul Giamatti) is a "lifer" at the Barton Academy for boys. A former student of Barton, he is now an old, crusty professor of classics to the (as he describes them)"philistine" and "vulgarian" sons of the rich, privileged and selfish. The kids have been dumped at the Academy by their self-possessed parents, and although the Academy has a good pedigree, a lengthy history and tradition, and good educational standards, the students will be passed through, however meager their achievements and retention, given pressure from their rich donor parents. 
Except by Hunnan, who does not grade on the curve, but rather on reality, and calls them as he sees them, which, given a particular ocular deficit, one might think he is over-compensating. He's already by reprimanded by the Academy president—whom he had the indignity of teaching as a teen—that if he keeps failing the scions of Senators and Captains of Industry, he might be handed his papers. But, overly principled and disheartened by the lethargy and unscrupulousness of the times (which is 1970—you can tell because the film is in a blocky aspect ratio), he continues to grade as he sees fit, and takes comfort in his study of the past, where we were learning our lessons as a humanity. At least, we were learning. Now (as he will say later) "the world doesn't make sense anymore. I mean, it's on fire. The rich don't give a shit. Poor kids are cannon fodder. Integrity is a punch line. Trust is just a name on a bank."
But, he persists—he really has nowhere to go—casting cultured pearls before swine. The kids are dismissed by Academy staff as "rich and dumb"—not just by the faculty, but by the kitchen staff, as well—but they are necessary for the continuance of the Academy. And their employment.
What the kids think is readily dismissed, as they're just passing through, even if barely passing. It's merely one more hurdle of legacy before enjoying the ranks of privilege. But, their contempt is obvious, with Hunnan and his exacting standards, being singled out for particular ridicule. He can't be "gamed," so he's a "Nazi." In conversation with the Academy's cafeteria engineer, Mary Lamb (
Da'Vine Joy Randolph) about her late son—killed in Vietnam—he mentions that he taught her son one semester, calling him "very insightful," to which she responds "He hated you. Said you were a real asshole."
"Well, like I said." as he's heard it all before. "Sharp kid. Insightful." The kindest thing said about him is by one of the better students, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who just says "That poor wall-eyed bastard."
That "poor wall-eyed bastard" is going to have it even rougher with the coming holiday. Every year, some faculty drone is assigned to stay over at the Academy for "babysitting" the poor slob students who, for whatever reason, can't go home for Christmas and must stay on campus. It's the worst job in the world. The School's shut down, the heat turned off—everybody has to bunk in the infirmary which is still warm—and the meals (Mary's staying the holidays, too) are whatever's left because nobody's going to deliver anything until January. But, Hunnan is determined to make the burden productive, keeping the hapless students busy with studies and calisthenics. For the six, it's a Holiday in Hell.

As it is for Hunnan and Mary.
That's the set-up, which sounds vaguely familiar in a Scent of a Woman (American version) kind of way. But, The Holdovers is so far afield of that movie that they practically can't be compared. There will be some whittling down of the cast, leaving only one student—Tully—left behind, with Hunnan and Lamb. That nicely simplifies things and allows it to focus on the issues of those souls, with the to-be-expected sanding down of rough edges and the meshing of gears and sensibilities. Compromises are made to the point where three disparate people—make that four—are there for each other to sooth extremes and come to each other's aid. People change, but for the most remain the same to their cores.
It's a bit like comfort food, this movie, as so many of the films of Alexander Payne—working (as he did with Nebraska) from an original script not of his own devising—are. Sure, the characters are flawed, sometimes doing things that are inexplicable, but in the service of lessons learned and ruts overcome. And the director doesn't do anything fancy with cinematography, just puts the camera where it will do the most good, and appreciating the simplicity of something so basic as a sustained fade.
My Lambcast colleague, Howard Casner, had a nice little turn of phrase for it: "a feel-good movie that actually feels good." There are no discernible manipulations and hair-pin turns to reach the desired outcomes. It all feels organic and well-played, but not theatrical or melodramatic. Things evolve, naturally, bringing you to the point where you think that this is the way the world should work, even as the screenplay never compromises in its assertion that the world doesn't. And the trinity of actors—Giamatti (perpetually dickish and donnish), Randolph (who could have turned Octavia Spencer in the role, but stays underplayed and real) and Sessa (an air of suspicion rarely leaves his face)—spark off each other and generate a steady warmth without glowing about it.
It's a film of modest means and great decency. In all manners of the term.

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