Discover more from Appetite for Deconstruction
'The Holdovers' Is Funny, Sad, and a Little Slight
Also: The joys of 'Cedar Rapids.'
The filmmaker Alexander Payne was born and raised in Omaha, but attended Stanford University for college. Five of the eight features he has directed take place in Nebraska - one is even called Nebraska - and it seems safe to say that he doesn’t hold his fellow Nebraskans in very high regard. His droll 1996 debut, Citizen Ruth, and his one true masterpiece, 1999’s Election, are cruel-hearted satires that tear apart all of their risible characters with equal amounts of disdain. But even the films he’s made that allegedly humanize small-town midwesterners, like About Schmidt and the aforementioned Nebraska, really look down their nose at those at people, leaning into every imaginable stereotype about red state inhabitants being unsophisticated. Regardless of whether you like those movies or not (I have mixed feelings myself), it’s hard to argue that they have a sunny worldview of people from that part of the country.
By way of contrast, The Holdovers, Payne’s just-released eighth feature, is his first film set in New England, and while it’s very hard on America’s upper crust, it goes pretty easy on everyone else. Like its protagonist, it might seem misanthropic at first, but at the end of the day, it’s a big softie underneath. And while you may or may not agree with the implication that the only good midwesterner is a relocated midwesterner, the truth is, The Holdovers’ smoothed edges make it Payne’s most watchable offering in years.
Set at an elite all-boys boarding school in Massachusetts during the early ‘70s, The Holdovers stars Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham, who is both an alum of the academy and its most-hated teacher. A high-functioning alcoholic, his specialty is ancient civilization, and he’s the kind of academic who constantly peppers his speech with Latin phrases before judging people on whether or not they correctly recognize those terms and their origins. He holds his students to a spectacularly high standard (he gives one student an F+), he’s acerbically insulting (Student: “I don’t understand.” Hunham: “That’s glaringly apparent.” Student: “I can’t fail this class.” Hunham: “Oh, don’t sell yourself short… I truly believe that you can.”), and he won’t bow to powerful donors whose offspring usually get into Ivy League schools as a matter of course. Physically, he’s not doing much better than he is socially - he has a glass eye and a condition that gives him perpetually sweaty hands while exacerbating his body odor, and it’s made clear that he hasn’t a romantic partner in quite some time. He could very easily be an uncle to the lonesome, Merlot-hating wine snob Giamatti played in Payne’s Sideways (which, incidentally, was set in California).
Hunham ends up assigned to remain at the school during its Christmas recess to chaperone the titular students who have nowhere else to go. The only other adult left on campus is Mary Lamb (the terrific Da'Vine Joy Randolph), a Black woman whose 19-year-old son, also a graduate of the school, was recently killed in Vietnam. But circumstances quickly conspire to ensure that only one student is actually left for Hunham to look after: Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, making his screen debut), a smart kid with behavioral issues whose mother abandons him to enjoy a delayed honeymoon with his wealthy stepfather. Consequently, Hunham, Angus, and Mary gradually grow into a kind of surrogate family.
So desperately does Payne sculpt The Holdovers in the image of actual films from the ‘70s that its opening production company logos and credits have been redesigned to appear vintage… but the song which plays over them, Damien Jurado’s “Silver Joy,” only sounds like it was from that era (it was released in 2014). That level of affectation is irritating and starts the movie off on the wrong foot.
Fortunately, the film quickly improves. The Holdovers is being sold as a comedy, when it’s really more of a dramedy, steeped in melancholy and earnestness. The more Payne peels back the layers on his trio of main characters, the sadder they become - and the more readily apparent it is that their baggage largely stems from issues of class and, in Mary’s case, race. But things never get so oppressively bleak as to completely rob Payne of comedic opportunities. Hunham, Angus, and Mary consistently butt heads, and they can all give it as well as they take it.
The dramatic beats of the story are tried and true, and the conclusion is predictably saccharine - the script is by David Hemingson, whose career has mostly been writing for cheesy television shows like How I Met Your Mother, so all things considered, it’s a marvel that The Holdovers isn’t completely bogged down by clichés and sentimentality. But the humor, the general competence of the cast, and the fact that Payne doesn’t let things get too mawkish all collaborate to keep it afloat. And because it doesn’t feel like Payne is belittling these people the way he did the ensembles of his films set in Nebraska, The Holdovers never feels alienating, chilly, or insincere.
Come to think of it, “competent,” “warm,” and “sincere” are probably the best adjective to describe The Holdovers. This is the kind of movie that often wins mainstream awards because it’s straightforward, easy comprehensible, and not especially demanding, but it’s also not simplistic or distractingly-inept, and you’d have to be a monster to watch it and feel nothing. If you were to teach a Screenwriting 101 class, The Holdovers could be an appropriate part of the syllabus. It’s not a great movie, but it is a very good one. I can think of far worse ways to spend two hours in a theater.
The kindest midwest-set movie Payne has ever made is 2011’s vastly under-appreciated Cedar Rapids, which he co-produced with his frequent writing partner, Jim Taylor, but did not actually write or direct himself. That movie begins and ends in Wisconsin, predominantly unfolds in Iowa, was written by Minnesota native Phil Johnson (Wreck-It Ralph), and directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl), who was born in Puerto Rico and attended high school in Costa Rica before immigrating to the U.S. And Cedar Rapids is not only hysterically funny, but it doesn’t have a mean bone in its body. Whether that’s because Payne wasn’t on set every day or because the film doesn’t take place in Nebraska, I don’t know, but Cedar Rapids tanked at the box office when it was first released, and if you’ve never seen it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
In Cedar Rapids, Ed Helms plays Tim Lippe, a guileless insurance agent dispatched to a convention in the titular city after his most esteemed co-worker (Thomas Lennon) abruptly dies from auto-erotic asphyxiation. Never before has Tim left his small town in Wisconsin; his boss and father figure, played by American goddamn treasure Stephen Root, preps Tim as though he were being sent to Gomorrah. Which, it turns out, he kind of is, but not in the way he expects.
Tim is so sweet-natured, earnest, and naive that he doesn’t drink, doesn’t recognize when he’s being blatantly propositioned by a sex worker (Alia Shawkat) and doesn’t think twice about running afoul of her pimp (Rob Corddry), mistakes casual sex with a married woman for a declaration of true love, has seemingly never met a Black person before, and is appalled to learn that his fellow insurance salespeople are not always on the up-and-up. Initially, he’s judgmental of some of his more foul-mouthed peers, including Dean (a reliably hilarious John C. Reilly) and Joan (the late Anne Heche), but his journey is largely about learning the difference between jovial profanity and genuinely-malicious cynicism.
Bolstered by its amazing supporting cast - which also includes Sigourney Weaver, Kurtwood Smith, and Isiah Whitlock Jr., who should have gotten an Oscar nomination for his performance - Cedar Rapids could have been a story about how the world ruins a guy who may be too nice for his own good. But it’s ultimately the opposite - it’s a story about a truly nice guy who maintains his principles despite overwhelming pressure to give in to corruption.
I hate to use the descriptors “heart-warming” and “feel good,” because they have sappy connotations, but that’s precisely what Cedar Rapids is: Heart-warming and feel-good. It acknowledges that the midwest isn’t as pure as the driven snow, but it also doesn’t just outright dismiss 20% of the American population. I defy you to watch the movie and not aspire to being more like Tim by the end.