The Holdovers Tells You That You Are Special
After all, you recognize the standard Hollywood tropes for specialness, right?
Two unpleasant people who don’t like each other are forced to spend time together. At first, they insult and antagonize one another. But slowly they begin to realize that they are both damaged, but salvageable. They share secrets. They have joint experiences. Eventually, there is a final significant glance, in which they recognize their shared humanity and their common core of goodness.
Hollywood loves that movie. I, personally, never need to fucking see it again. But see it I did, as I wandered more or less unprepared into Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, an interminable exercise in cliché and easy sentimentality, which ostentatiously boasts of its intelligence and depth while carefully avoiding any original thought or insight. The movie is supposed to uplift and suffuse you in a warm Christmas glow, but Payne’s manipulations are fundamentally cynical—and barely conceal a core of self-satisfaction and cruelty that makes it difficult to enjoy even the sporadically amusing one-liners.
Send in the good fathers
Again, the plot is a fill in the blank exercise, but fwiw, those blanks are filled in thus: the movie is set in 1970 at a New England boarding school. The first unpleasant person is Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) a crotchety, despotic classics professor. Paul failed a donor’s son, and for that sin he is forced to stay over Christmas break to watch the few students who don’t have anywhere to go for the holidays. The other unpleasant person is one of his students, an angry young man named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), whose mom and step-father ditch him at the last minute.
Angus and Paul both have tragic backstories involving their fathers. This eventually draws them together and is supposed to garner your sympathy. The thematic core of the film is a tete-a-tete in which Paul assures Angus that he does not have to be his damaged father; that he is his own man. The not-very-buried implication is that Angus can be his own man in part by choosing Paul as his father figure; pick a new patriarch, become a new guy.
The tale of healed masculinity would be a bit more convincing if Paul weren’t far closer to his father than he, or the film, wants to admit. His father, we learn, beat him because Paul wouldn’t be who his dad wanted him to be. And, in the same vein, Paul treats his students with contempt and open sadism because they aren’t sufficiently invested in his own passion for ancient history. When the students do poorly on the final, Paul taunts them, offering and then withdrawing a make-up test just to terrorize and fuck with them. Over Christmas break, he forces the kids to study and gleefully hands out detentions—to students, remember, who are there because they don’t have families who can take them over the holidays.
The movie does recognize that Paul is being horrible—Angus even calls him a sadist, and other characters reprimand him. But he’s also supposed to be eccentric and cute and justified since the students are wealthy and sometimes assholes themselves. The movie can’t fully acknowledge the extent of the power he has over children as an adult and a teacher because if they did his transformation from bad dad to good dad would be inadequate.
Okay, yes, he ends up being kind to Angus, eventually. But what about all the other kids whose lives he’s blighted? Are we supposed to just accept that they all deserved it because they weren’t interested in classics? As Angus shows, you don’t necessarily know what misery children are facing at home.
Better than the wait staff
The trick here is that the film isn’t really about two people becoming morally better in some sort of universal way. Rather the movie is about special people recognizing each other’s specialness. The appeal is that the viewer, too, gets to feel special for recognizing the value in the protagonists. The message of these kinds of films is ostensibly, “We are all good, every one.” But the emotional power is more in the way it tells those watching, “You are one of the good ones.”
The scene that tips the movies hand here occurs as we start to move towards the end. Paul and Angus and the school cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) are at a restaurant in Boston when Paul tries to order cherries jubilee with brandy as a desert for Angus. This is a reversal for Paul, who had previously refused to allow to buy the underage Angus alcohol. Paul’s willingness to loosen the rules is a sign that he is becoming a less rigid and better person.
Paul’s efforts are foiled though; the waitress won’t serve Angus. After some wheedling, Paul calls her a fascist, Mary calls her a bitch, and they all storm out. Paul, Mary,and Angus are the good, cool people willing to bend the rules, while the waitress has taken Paul’s place as the rigid martinet. End of moral.
But what is the moral exactly? Is it that you should seize the day and enjoy life? Or is the moral that waitresses aren’t allowed to serve alcohol to minors and can lose their jobs if they do?
This scene is supposed to show Paul growing and becoming a kinder, better person. Yet what it actually shows is that he’s the same as he ever was; he has a short temper, and takes it out, with apparent relish, on people in a subordinate position. We’re supposed to cheer him on because we know he’s important and good, and that the waitress is a minor character nobody. We can see the people who matter—which means we matter too. And part of the way we matter is that we get to laugh at the people who don’t.
Not all about Mary
Mary occupies a secondary, but important place in all this mattering. The main supporting character in the film, she is Black and working-class, and her son, Curtis, died in Vietnam earlier in the year. Paul treats Mary with respect and kindness, which is supposed to counterbalance the way he treats the students. Her grief, her dignity, and her hardship position her at the film’s moral center. She implicitly blesses Paul and Anguses recognition of each other’s value because she recognizes their value too.
Mary is given a fair bit of screentime, and Randolph uses every moment to great effect. But director Payne is careful not to give her story equal weight. We’re allowed only a glimpse of Mary interacting with her sister; we don’t hear their words. If we did, it might distract, once and for all, from the Oscar-bait narrative of men filled with respect for each other’s intelligence and primacy.
At the end of The Holdovers, Paul makes the expected sacrifice and receives the expected tribute of gratitude from Angus. They assure each other, and you, that they, and you, are intelligent and good. The snow falls on the just and unjust, and Payne has given you unique insight into which is which. Thus girded, you can face the world with a calm conscience, certain that when you insult the waitstaff, you are doing so in the name of God and the Greek virtues—or at least of Hollywood.