Alexander Payne, purveyor of fine vibes, might be softening up. The undercurrent to his formula – hovering over tragedy just long enough to score some good ennui but dipping out before things turn maudlin – has contained a whiff of skepticism regarding the cost of interpersonal relationships to one’s sanity. It’s not that he thinks people can’t change, but perhaps there’s something to be said for the allure of holding out. While The Holdovers harbors plenty of arms-length-only trust in other people, there is also a new, wholesome willingness to let people in that suggests there is also magnetism in growth.
The subdued, nostalgic feel of snowy 1970s New England at Christmastime is a nicely cushioned backdrop for Paul Giamatti’s charismatic curmudgeon. In a role that could easily be Sideways’ Miles 30 years on, he plays a dour academic in need of a good de-Scrooging, who, along with grieving school cook Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), are forced to chaperone an abandoned student (Dominic Sessa) over the Christmas holiday. What ensues is standard, enjoyable character-driven Payne fare: an irascible mood fest where unlikely friends find themselves on an unlikely romp.
What is most surprising about The Holdovers is how well it morphs into a comforting, found-family holiday classic. Nothing too cheerful and no one too caustic, apparently this is what’s been missing from the Christmas movie canon: a Payne pop music movie in a minor key.