In the most shockingly funny moment of Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” Miles Raymond, the desperate English teacher and wine aficionado (that is, alcoholic with good taste) played by Paul Giamatti, has just learned that his book was turned down by the publisher he had his hopes pinned on. It’s more than a rejection; it’s the death of his dream. Miles is in the middle a chi-chi Napa Valley wine tasting, and suddenly he’s in dire need of a drink. He asks the bartender for a glass of red, but all the man will pour him is a “taste.” Miles offers to pay for a full glass, but no go: That would be breaking the rules. It’s like the side-order-of-toast scene in “Five Easy Pieces,” only what happens here is three times as explosive. Miles grabs the bottle on the bar and pours himself a drink, and he and the bartender wind up wrestling over it. At which point, in a rage of desolation, Miles seizes the wine-tasting bucket — the one that everyone has been spitting into — and pours the contents down his throat and all over his face.
If I had to sum up what the spirit of filmmaking in the 1970s was about, I would say, “That moment.” “Sideways” came out in 2004, but even then it hearkened back to a lost era of American cinema. Giamatti’s Miles was a dweeb, a loser, a man enmeshed in the gears of self-hatred. Yet he had an inner lawlessness about him. You never knew what he was going to blurt out next. He was a schlub looking for redemption, but he was also an addict at the end of his tether, boiling over with a barely repressed fury.
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I wish I could say the same of Paul Hunham, the disgruntled history teacher Giamatti plays in Payne’s “The Holdovers.” Hunham, who teaches at a rural New England prep school, is the kind of haughty curmudgeon who holds his students to “standards” that none of them will ever live up to. We can see that he’s got problems, and big ones; he spends his life pushing life out of the way. “The Holdovers,” like “Sideways,” is a journey of redemption. Yet Paul Hunham, in his mournfully witty and gnarled misanthropic way, is such a controlled, hemmed-in character that it’s hard to feel the force, however buried, of anything wild in him. On some level we always know what he’s going to blurt out next.
I’m not saying that “The Holdovers” and “Sideways” need to be the same. The earlier film had a tone that was brash, intimate, yearning. It made Miles, in the monumental quality of his flaws, a stand-in for the audience — for our own dashed dreams and hidden self-hatred — and that’s what gave it a cathartic quality. “The Holdovers” is a much tidier film, with a shaggy-dog teenage hero (the very good Dominic Sessa), and it flirts with assorted formulas. It’s a hangout movie that turns into a road movie that turns into a Christmas movie that turns into a stake-your-claim-and-take-a-stand movie that turns into a Movie With An Officially Unresolved Ending. (You’ve rarely seen “ambiguity” so meticulously delineated.) Yet it all fits together, if rather too neatly. “Sideways” was a great film. “The Holdovers” is a pretty good one: funny, touching, impeccably crafted, nicely performed. What it isn’t is a 1970s movie. It’s just pretending to be one.
When you hear the phrase “a ’70s movie,” it now means two different things. One is the sort of mainstream drama that comes out all too rarely these days (usually during awards season), a movie with full-bodied characters, supple dialogue, unpredictable and unhyped situations, and a general aura of humanity. On that level, “The Holdovers” qualifies. But all that good stuff doesn’t ultimately define what made the movies of the New American Cinema, half a century ago, so resonant and indelible. The great ones — “American Graffiti,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Blume in Love,” “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “Shampoo,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” and on and on — had an astonishing quality of realism. It’s not so much that they were “dark.” It’s that they had currents of everyday melancholy and anger and confusion rippling through them. They had the daring to let scenes unfold with the spontaneity of life.
That’s an incredibly tricky quality to achieve, and part of the magic of ’70s movies is that they grew, organically, out of everything about the 1970s that was scruffier and more hang-loose than it is today. When we say that a contemporary movie is “like a ’70s movie,” it’s a kind of metaphor, and it’s very subjective. To me, “Tár” is a ’70s movie; “The Banshees of Inisherin” is not. Yet from the moment that “The Holdovers” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, what has given the film a special relationship to the whole ’70s movie thing is that it’s been designed and packaged to generate that very response. Which, when you think about it, is the opposite of what any true ’70s movie would do.
There are the fetishistic trappings: the small white period font of the opening credits, the ersatz ’70s logos created for Miramax and Focus Features (which give you the same nostalgic ping that Quentin Tarantino’s use of the old drive-in-theater “Our Feature Presentation” intro does). Beyond that, the key ’70s hook of “The Holdovers” is that the movie itself is set…in 1970! I mean, how 1970s is that? Yet once again, this is a kind of literalism that, in spirit, couldn’t be further from the ’70s. As cinema, “The Holdovers” is the equivalent of a vintage vinyl record collection purchased entirely over the last five years. The movie is a cinematic signifier of ersatz retro passion.
None of which makes it a bad film. Yet it’s my feeling that there’s something staid and diagrammed at the heart of “The Holdovers, a lack of inner unruliness, that keeps it from being a genuinely enthralling experience, the way that “Sideways” was. To me, the moment that incarnates the film’s conservative spirit is when the characters, roaming through Boston, are at a flea market, and Paul Hunham is approached by a flamboyantly dressed woman who is obviously a sex worker. She asks if he’d like to come with her. I thought, “Yes! Go!” It’s kind of what he needs. And more than that, it’s what the movie needs — an escape into a byway of erotic chanciness, of something new and bold and different. What would a scene like that bring out in Paul Hunham? And how would the great ’70s screenwriter Robert Towne have written it? Alas, we never find out. Hunham turns her down, and the movie lumbers on in its amiably random but contained way.
I like “The Holdovers” fine; I just don’t love it. But in terms of how it stacks up in this year’s awards sweepstakes, I think it now occupies a very ironic place. It’s competing with films, like “Oppenheimer” and “Poor Things” and “Maestro” and “Barbie” and “Killers of the Flower Moon,” that feel far more of their own time (even though several of them are rooted in history). Will “The Holdovers” have traction, at the box office and in the awards race? If so, it could be the contender that occupies what you might call the “Green Book” niche — a kind of retro comfort-food zone destined to appeal to more traditional Academy voters.
For “The Holdovers,” while it comes on all ’70s, is at heart an odyssey of nostalgia that’s being sold as a holiday feel-good movie. The grand and rather nagging paradox at the heart of the film is that it’s a planned-out version of a “free form” movie. The ’70s film it most recalls is “The Last Detail,” the Hal Ashby classic about three sailors, led by Jack Nicholson, wandering from city to city on a quiet odyssey of remorseful discovery. Watching “The Last Detail,” you always feel like you’re glimpsing lives that extend beyond the frame of the movie itself. “The Holdovers,” by contrast, is a movie where you can feel the calculation that went into every last detail.
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