Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Best of 2023, #3: The Holdovers

Is this the most convincing period piece ever made? This feels like a movie that’s been sitting in the can sealed up since 1971, and is only now getting a belated release. It felt like Hal Ashby made this in between Harold and Maude and The Last Detail, and that’s pretty high praise, coming from me.

The number one rule of writing is that you can write about any type of character except one: Self-pitying losers. That’s the one type of hero audiences will supposedly never root for. Well, no one ever told Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti. Just as with Sideways, they’ve created another wretched failure we cannot help but love. (Both are high school teachers, both have had to give up on dreams of getting published, both drink high end hooch straight out of the bottle.) In this one, Giamatti’s character literally stinks! He gives off a fishy smell. How abject is that?

So how do they do it? James Kennedy thought Sideways got away with it by having Giamatti ditch his job for a while and live out a fantasy trip (on stolen money) instead. Giamatti also ditches his job for an unauthorized road trip with a different type of manchild, although in this case he’s doing it in a more self-sacrificing way.

One thing the two characters have in common is expertise and dedication to their fields of study. We like stubborn characters. In this movie, when Giamatti gives his surly student a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Mediations” for Christmas, it feels pushy, but then when he gives the same book to the cafeteria worker, it seems downright willful.

Of course, in this one, Payne has his thumb on the scale a bit more heavily, because the movie ends on Giamatti making a heroic sacrifice, putting us more definitively on his side than we ever were in Sideways. Maybe that means that Giamatti will finally earn his Oscar this time. Last time he wasn’t even nominated!

Ultimately this movie isn’t quite as good as Sideways, but it would be a worthy winner in all categories, if only to make up for last time.

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