Critics Have Seen The Holdovers, And They Are In Agreement About Paul Giamatti’s Coming-Of-Age Christmas Dramedy

 Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers.
Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers.

Back in 2004, Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne teamed up for one of the best movies of the 2000s, Sideways, which earned several Academy Award nominations and a win for Payne’s Best Adapted Screenplay. Nearly 20 years later, the two have come together again for The Holdovers, which has been garnering Oscar buzz since making the festival rounds at Toronto and Telluride ahead of its limited release in October. Now the Christmas drama is hitting theaters around the country, and critics are raving about the coming-of-age holiday flick.

The Holdovers centers around a teacher, student and cook in the 1970s who form an unlikely bond while staying at their New England boarding school over a two-week winter break. Alongside Paul Giamatti as the strict history professor Paul Hunham, Dominic Sessa makes his feature film debut as the rebellious student Angus Tully. Da'Vine Joy Randolph plays Mary Lamb, the cook who has suffered the loss of her son. Let’s see what the critics say, starting with Emily Murray of GamesRadar. The critic rates the film a perfect 5 out of 5 stars, writing:

Yes, it’s a familiar story that riffs on undeniable cliches, but that doesn’t prevent it from being a stripped-back triumph. Showcasing Payne's best form since the Oscar-winning Sideways, it thrives upon the writer/director’s reunion with that film’s leading man.

Stacey Yvonne of Wealth of Geeks rates it a 6.5 out of 10, saying it lacks a bit in character development, but overall The Holdovers comes highly recommended as a “lovely” film that sees Alexander Payne in top form and Paul Giamatti at his best. Yvonne continues:

Payne brings a comfort to the way the trio moves through the space and the director captures this intimacy so it’s pleasantly noticeable. To add to this authenticity, the production filmed no scenes on soundstages. The whole production shot on location and the rooms feel lived in and present. The story is solid, aided by top-notch direction and cinematography. The actors deliver fantastic performances, but the film leaves a bit to be desired with the character development.

Film critic Leonard Maltin calls The Holdovers the most satisfying film he’s seen all year. It’s impossible to envision anyone but Paul Giamatti in the leading role, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph is “a marvel” in what she adds to her character. From Maltin’s review:

Paul Giamatti completely inhabits the role of pompous professor, and newcomer Dominic Sessa is equally credible as his most truculent student. I don’t think it’s too soon to predict a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Da’Vine Joy Randolph. The Holdovers may be too slow and talky for some people but I simply loved it. Like the filmmaker’s best work, it deals with characters who struggle from day to day to live their lives—and that should make it relatable to just about any audience. The time and care that Alexander Payne put into this movie pay big dividends. It is a beautiful film.

Robert Butler III of Geeks of Color gives the movie a 9 out 10, writing that Paul Giamatti is “exceptional” and deserves every accolade he will inevitably earn this coming awards season. As for the movie overall, Butler writes:

Despite a meager character arc from one of the film’s few Black characters, the Nebraska director manages to sidestep a surface-level examination of class and privilege to create a kindhearted, relatable story of abandonment and loneliness. Somehow, this unlikely trio finds some semblance of family among each other through shared emotions of grief, depression, and solitude. Thanks to its razor-sharp dialogue and beautifully subtle performances, The Holdovers illuminates the tender sensitivity of rising above life’s lowest moments.

Manuel Betancourt of AV Club notes that while questions posed in The Holdovers regarding mental health, trauma, privilege and entitlement are anchored in its 1970s setting, the themes are all the more relevant today. The movie drives home the need for gentleness, not only for others but with ourselves. In Betancourt’s words:

The Holdovers may peg its tale on a truism that can feel trite (you never know what others are going through). But Payne, [writer David Hemingson], and its central trio of actors find welcome nuances within that platitude. On paper, this may sound like yet another holiday tale about a curmudgeon having his heart thawed by encounters that force him to examine his past, present, and future. On screen, though, the story emerges as something much thornier and gentler.

The film boasts an overwhelmingly positive reception on Rotten Tomatoes, garnering a 96 percent Fresh rating from more than 175 reviews. Now that The Holdovers is in wide release, check your local showtimes to catch this flick, because it sounds like we may be hearing about it again come awards season. Also be sure to check out our 2023 movie release calendar to see what else is coming to the big screen through the end of the year.