Alexander Payne’s ‘The Holdovers’ finds light in human connection

MANILA, PHILIPPINES — With The Holdovers (2023), Director Alexander Payne captures another masterful portrait of American melancholy and presents it with heart-warming levity courtesy of unforgettable performances by Paul Giamatti (Sideways, Lady in the Water) and Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite is My Name).

Alexander introduced himself as a powerhouse of American filmmaking when he released 1999’s black-comedy satire Election and followed it up with two more opuses, About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004). The Holdovers is a return to form for the 63–year–old filmmaker, as he eruditely crafts a bleak yet touching narrative of finding your chosen family in life’s dark realities.

Set in the holiday season during the Vietnam War, the film follows a disgruntled school teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul), stuck in an elite boarding school taking care of an abrasive but smart student named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa). As everyone goes on Christmas break, the unlikely pair are joined by the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine), a grieving mother who lost her son, Curtis, to the war.


Unlike Alexander’s more recent works, Nebraska (2013) and Downsizing (2017), which follow ironic characters navigating absurd journeys, The Holdovers is a clear-cut Christmas movie, complete with snowed-in small-town roads and church choir hymns. 

However, don’t expect this film to feel like a warm blanket on a cold December morning — this is an Alexander Payne movie, after all. There is a subtle sense of bleakness that cuts deep under the surface, found in between moments of genuine wholesomeness and sentimental humor. 

Powerful acting fueled by a sharply written script

The Holdovers owes its narrative power to its sharply written script by TV writer David Hemingson (Kitchen Confidential, Whiskey Cavalier) and a pair of tour de force performances by Paul and Da’Vine. Paul, who reunites with his Sideways director, is in prime acting form. From his dialogue delivery to his posture right down to his lazy eye, the 56-year-old Hollywood veteran lives and breathes his character — an often irritating, self-righteous intellectual with an utter disdain for arrogant rich boys. 

Da’Vine’s depiction of a mother suffering the untimely death of her son captures the emotional plight of the character with controlled brilliance. She portrays Mary’s heartbreak with a tired sense of dignity, barely keeping everything together underneath her poised, quick-witted demeanor. Every word she utters bears tremendous weight and command, even when she’s snarky or just plain facetious. While Paul fuels most of the story’s hilarity, Da’Vine brings the emotional high points.

One of the stronger scenes from The Holdovers occurs early in the story when Paul and Mary share a late-night TV re-run of Newlyweds, a show where new couples are asked questions to determine how well they know each other. As they watch a TV show that tells us just how much we don’t know each other as people, Paul and Mary candidly start peeking into each other’s souls in a deceptively mundane conversation. 

Crisp dialogue perfectly echoes the character’s distinct voices, from Paul’s endless rolodex of creative insults to Mary’s tactless wit. The way the writer and director make the conversation fluidly swim from laugh-out-loud humor to gut-punching drama and back again with such few words uttered is nothing short of phenomenal. 

Strength in subtlety

As a director, Alexander’s weapon of choice is subtlety. He skirts exposition by providing gaps for the audience to fill on their own. Backstories are told via still shots of carefully arranged sets. Raw, unspoken emotions are felt through words said passively in otherwise unrelated exchanges. 

Alexander avoids over-sensationalizing his scenes with complex camera work, rousing music, or Oscar-bait lines. His camera barely moves, only gliding slowly in straight motions when needed. He pushes his shots in ever so slowly, intensifying a character’s emotion during certain lines. The auteur doesn’t cut abruptly, either; he instead uses cross-dissolves to go with the film’s emotionally tender tone. 

If Alexander’s weapon of choice is subtlety, then the steed he rides to battle is humor. He expertly portrays characters at disappointing points in their lives and presents them with complex and absurd circumstances that push them to grow as humans. In between moments of struggle, he shines a light on the absurdity of life and how it can be funny when we just stay with it long enough.

As he makes you laugh your lungs out, Alexander gut-punches you with a dose of reality so emotionally charged it shakes you to your tears. 

Sadness, isolation, grief, and loss can often drive us back to ourselves and create walls to protect us. If we do this long enough, we become arrogant experts of what we know but never open up to the world. As sad as the themes may be, The Holdovers ultimately finds light in its characters’ abilities to step out of themselves and connect with those they otherwise see as lesser individuals. Paul, Angus, and Mary become closer to each other as they peel layers and layers of scars until they reach a common ground: their humanity.

Despite the sadness of life, there is beauty to be seen in the resilience of people who just keep trudging along — together. 

The Holdovers opens exclusively in Ayala Malls Cinemas on February 21.

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