Life & Culture

The Holdovers review: A beautifully wrought comedy that took me back to 1970

Twenty years after Sideways, director Alexander Payne reunites with Oscar-nominated Paul Giamatti


The human touch: Dominic Sessa as Angus and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary in director Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers (Photo: Seacia Pavao / 2023 Focus Features LLC)

The Holdovers


The 2004 movie Sideways turned Paul Giamatti into the rare thing that is an A-list character actor. Twenty years later director Alexander Payne reunites with Giamatti to make this beautifully wrought comedy set in 1970 which has landed Payne’s star with an Oscar nomination.

Giamatti plays intimidating, Cicero-quoting classics teacher Paul Hunman who has been landed the job of looking after the students of his boarding school who do not have family to go home to over Christmas.

Thing is, nor does Hunman. An austere stickler for rules, standards and academic rigour he is not liked by the staff or the students, the most difficult of whom is Angus played by Dominic Sessa.

We learn that his mother wants to spend the holidays with her new man, leaving poor Angus to spend the season of good will with the hated Hunman.

Obviously the plot is about how and whether these two can survive Christmas together. But if Sideways was a road movie so is The Holdovers. Not in terms of tarmac covered but in the sense of the journey involved in closing the gap between two people whose antipathy for each other is legion.

The humour is both gentle, hilarious and deeply humane. There is also a very moving sub plot about Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randalph) the school cook who is mourning the death of her son. And it feels and looks so convincingly 1970 you would think the film was made, as well as set, in that year. As joyful a two hours as you could wish for.

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