Alexander Payne’s new film The Holdovers, starring Paul Giamatti, is the kind of wonderful comedy-drama we used to take for granted. Today it feels like a cinematic miracle.

Still of Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers. (Focus Pictures)

The Holdovers, writer-director Alexander Payne’s unexpectedly wonderful new movie, is perfect holiday viewing if you’re longing for the kind of movie that used to be abundant and is now tragically scarce. It’s a warm, perceptive comedy-drama that makes you feel connected to your fellow human beings. It seems strange even typing that phrase, now such a thing of the past when it comes to Hollywood.

And Payne is conscious of how past it is in this lovingly realized period piece, set in the weeks leading up to and spanning Christmas through New Year’s 1970. Mesmerizingly realized in every detail, the film represents the fictional Barton Academy, a traditional old WASP prep school outside Boston, Massachusetts, in such a way as to remind you of cultural characteristics that are both not so long past, yet at the same time “as dead as the Dodo.” That’s how classics teacher and ancient history buff Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) would put it, only to get a typically rude and uncomprehending response from one of his teenage students: “As dead as the what?”

“A Barton man never lies,” is one of the truisms offered by Hunham, who can’t live up to the rule any more than his students can. But it’s touching to think there was ever a culture that invested in the belief that it could mold citizens in such impossibly virtuous ways.

Payne took the premise of the film from an even earlier period — a 1935 French film called Merlusse, written and directed by Marcel Pagnol, who was noted for his warm humanist cinema. That film also involves a grouchy, strict, highly disliked teacher who gets stuck minding a small group of students during the Christmas holidays. Just reading that sentence tells you the basic plot of both Merlusse and The Holdovers — teacher and students will discover other dimensions to each other’s characters over the course of a few weeks of isolated togetherness, and bond in transformative, life-changing ways.

So no big surprises there. But Payne finds many ways to introduce smaller surprises in the course of pursuing that broad sentimental narrative. So many, in fact, that the whole film takes on a quality of bracing freshness that’s delightfully in tension with the way the film is so consciously embedded in the past. It thematically links the history of Western civilization, America, New England, and elite prep schools, with the personal pasts of each of the main characters.

“If you want to understand the present, you have to look at the past,” says the stuffy, pipe-smoking Hunham to his disaffected student. This is while they’re standing in the tellingly empty ancient history section of a Boston museum.

And, of course, Payne is evoking the cinematic past as well, saying in interviews that his goal was not just to evoke films of the early 1970s, but to come as close to making one as could be managed today.

According to Payne, it’s still quite possible to find in New England locations that look unchanged from the past fifty years, or a hundred-and-fifty years if need be. Plus he brings great sensitivity to the muted browns and blues of the color scheme, as well as the details of clothing, furniture, and music. Even the period-specific cars are wonderfully used and dirty.

The film gradually focuses on three characters, an especially unlikely trio. Hunham — as disliked by most of the faculty and the dean as he is by the students — is one of those moth-eaten pedants who’s worked for so long at one school, teaching the same classes, they seem part of the building itself. Giamatti, reunited with Payne for the first time since their big 2004 comedy hit Sideways, is terrific in a part Payne wrote specifically for him. He excels at dramatizing physical grossness and discomfort — just see his star-making performance as unkempt, cancer-stricken Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (1999) for proof. In addition to his curmudgeonly personality and esoteric interests, Hunham also suffers from a glandular condition that causes him to smell like a fish.

Giamatti’s so convincing in the role, people who’ve seen The Holdovers are already asking if he really has a glass eye or suffers from exotropia (the outward turning of one eye) like the character does. Hunham’s resentful students call him “Walleye,” among other things, and there’s speculation about which eye one should look at in conversation, which Paul — always secretive and seeking the rhetorical advantage — characteristically refuses to reveal.

Hunham’s older teenage student Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa in a remarkable film debut) seems at first to be just another loathsome, sneering rich kid, though he’s smarter than the majority. He gets the best exam grade in class right before the holidays, a B+. (No doubt hardass Hunham never gives As in that brave old world before grade inflation.) But Angus is a whining, complaining, harassing creep just like most of his peers until he suddenly finds out he’s not going on the expected posh holiday to St Kitts in the West Indies with his mother and new stepfather. Instead, they’ve elected to take a late honeymoon trip and leave him behind for the holidays.

The third main character is Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, also giving a tremendous performance), who runs the school cafeteria and has suffered a recent agonizing bereavement, the death of her teenage son Curtis, killed in the Vietnam War. She stays at the academy over the holidays because “it’s the last place I was with him.”

We see a large photo of Curtis Lamb in the elaborately old world Protestant chapel at Barton Academy, where there’s a small tribute to him as part of the last services before the holidays. Curtis is black, and wearing his military uniform in the photo. Though he and his mother aren’t the only people of color at the academy — one of the five “holdovers” is a miserably homesick Korean student, Ye Joon Park (Jim Kaplan) — there’s an engulfing sea of white faces around them.

Eventually we learn that Curtis was allowed to attend Barton Academy on a scholarship because his mother worked there, and after graduation, he’d joined the service in order to pay for college on the GI Bill. Hunham is sensitive to Mary’s grief at a school catering to the wealthy, where, as he tells Angus bitterly, students don’t wind up serving in Vietnam.

“Except Curtis Lamb,” says Angus.

“That’s right, except Curtis Lamb,” says Hunham savagely.

Paul’s own scorn for his students is based on an embittered class resentment and a torpedoed academic career, which is gradually revealed as he comes to exchange confidences with Angus that get ever more mutually revealing and, as Paul puts it, strictly “entre nous.”

Everything in the film works so well, I watched it almost in a state of bewilderment — how could it be this good? Surely it’ll sink into rank nostalgic sentimentalism. Or there will be weak performances. Or the ending will get botched.

But no. Every performance is wonderful, even when the character is a particularly tough one to play. For example, Miss Lydia Crane is a Barton faculty member who is unusually nice to Paul — she’s one of those incredibly sweet women that you almost can’t believe exist, though you’ve probably met one in your life, and Carrie Preston makes her so lovable it hurts. And Stephen Thorne does very sensitive work playing Angus’s father, Thomas Tully, who’s severely mentally ill and institutionalized — the way his eyes dart around uncertainly is harrowing to watch.

The overall tone of the film is beautifully modulated. And even the ending, which is both grim and hopeful at the same time, is handled just right. All of which is to say I simply can’t believe it — it happens so rarely, when an aging director has started to lose his grip on his craft, as Payne has in recent years, with his last film Downsizing (2017) as a saddening low point. But Alexander Payne is back, baby. And just in time for the holidays.

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