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Revisiting 'The Holdovers,' which is up for an Oscar along with actor Paul Giamatti


It's been almost two decades since director Alexander Payne and his star, Paul Giamatti, drank their way through Santa Barbara wine country. That was in their Oscar-nominated comedy "Sideways." Their new movie, "The Holdovers," has Giamatti playing a grouchy prep-school teacher who also does a bit of drinking. And critic Bob Mondello says he won't be surprised if Oscar comes calling once again.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You know those movies about inspirational teachers? Paul Giamatti's Mr. Hunham is kind of going for the opposite effect. We meet him in 1970, spreading Christmas cheer by returning graded exams as parents wait in Barton Academy's courtyard to spirit their sons away on break. Lots of D-minuses and F-pluses.


PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) I can tell by your faces that many of you are shocked at the outcome. I, on the other hand, am not because I have had the misfortune of teaching you this semester, and I witnessed firsthand your glazed, uncomprehending expressions.

BRADY HEPNER: (As Teddy) Sir, I don't understand.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) That's glaringly apparent.

HEPNER: (As Teddy) No, it's - I can't fail this class.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Oh, don't sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze. I truly believe that you can.

HEPNER: (As Teddy) I'm supposed to go to Cornell.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Unlikely.

MONDELLO: Hunham's got just one friend at Barton - the cafeteria manager, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph, who will be spending her first Christmas since the death of her son cooking for the holdover boys who don't have anywhere to go for the holidays.


DA'VINE JOY RANDOLPH: (As Mary) Mr. Hunham.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Hello, Mary.

RANDOLPH: (As Mary) I heard you got stuck with babysitting duty this year. How'd you manage that?

MONDELLO: It's his punishment for failing a legacy student the previous semester and creating problems for the headmaster. Initially, there are several boys in his care, but it eventually comes down to just Angus Tully, his best student, played by sad-eyed newcomer Dominic Sessa. He's a bratty privileged kid who knows how to push all of Hunham's buttons.


DOMINIC SESSA: (As Angus Tully) I thought all the Nazis were hiding in Argentina.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Stifle it, Tully.

MONDELLO: He's been kicked out of several schools already, and Hunham, sipping Jim Beam and fuming, bristles at the entitlement Angus clearly takes for granted.


GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) You think I want to be babysitting you? No, I was praying your mother would pick up the phone, or your father would arrive in a helicopter or a flying saucer to take you...

SESSA: (As Angus Tully) My father's dead.

MONDELLO: That leaves Mary to be the adult in the room.


RANDOLPH: (As Mary) You don't tell a boy that's been left behind at Christmas that nobody wants him. What's wrong with you?

MONDELLO: Aware of the arc this sort of story usually takes, the director heads off in other directions. Normally this exchange, for instance...


SESSA: (As Angus Tully) I don't think I've ever had a real family Christmas like this before. Thank you, Mary.

RANDOLPH: (As Mary) You're welcome.

MONDELLO: ...Would lead to a thaw. Here, it leads to an argument and another and another with student and teacher baiting each other even at moments when they seem to be reaching common ground.


SESSA: (As Angus Tully) OK. All right, now your turn. Go ahead. Tell me something about me - something negative.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Something negative about you?

SESSA: (As Angus Tully) Sure. Just one thing.

GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) Just one.

MONDELLO: Director Alexander Payne hasn't just made a movie set in the 1970s. He's done his best to make a 1970s movie. A longtime advocate for film preservation, he begins with vintage film company logos and uses filters to make the images look like they were shot on celluloid back then. His story is concerned with social issues, class, race, entitlement and centered on character - outcasts of the sort that used to grace films like "Harold And Maude."


GIAMATTI: (As Paul Hunham) I find the world a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me. I think you and I have this in common.

MONDELLO: The result is a film that honors folks who've all but given up on themselves at what's supposed to be the happiest time of year - which is to say, it's a classic Christmas movie narrative. To those who say they don't make them like they used to, "The Holdovers" holds over the way they used to. I'm Bob Mondello.


DAMIEN JURADO: (Singing) Let me sleep in the slumber of tomorrow. There's nowhere we need to be that will not be there after. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.