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‘The Holdovers’ passes the ‘should see’ test with flying colors

<i>Courtesy of Focus Features</i><br/>Dominic Sessa stars and Paul Giamatti in director Alexander Payne's
Courtesy of Focus Features
Dominic Sessa stars and Paul Giamatti in director Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers."

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

Nothing about “The Holdovers” sounds particularly special, and yet it’s one of director Alexander Payne’s best films – very funny, occasionally touching and a sterling example of the bonds that can be forged by an unlikely family. Set in a stiff New England private school in 1970, it passes the “should see” test with flying colors.

Reuniting with “Sideways” star Paul Giamatti, Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson incorporate a touch of “A Christmas Carol” in the plight of the handful of kids attending prep school who can’t go home over the holidays and need to be babysat for the two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s.

Giamatti’s Paul Hunham, a history teacher who delights in tormenting his students, has drawn the unenviable assignment — in part as punishment for failing the son of a privileged family, in part because he has nobody to spend the holidays with himself.

Also adrift on that island of misfit toys is Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), whose newly remarried mother has embarked on a vacation with her rich new husband; and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, stealing every scene in award-worthy fashion), the school cook, who also faces an empty house with her son having died in Vietnam.

The story at the heart of “The Holdovers” transcends place and time, although the hairstyles, well-chosen music and pop-culture references (such as the film “Little Big Man”) sprinkle nifty touches of authenticity that help peg the year.

After butting heads in the early going, it seems obvious the relationship between Paul and Angus will thaw during this time together, even if the weather doesn’t. Yet Payne and Hemingson fill the story with surprises, unexpected detours and small revelations that delineate the characters and the origins of their prickly shells.

Giamatti has kept plenty busy since Payne had him railing about not drinking Merlot (including the recently ended “Billions”), but this still represents a delightfully snide performance, assuring a student who blurts out that he can’t fail his class that having read his work, he’s pretty sure he can.

While small-boned movies of this kind have struggled to ace the box-office test, “The Holdovers” falls into a category (the John Hughes classic “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” comes to mind) set around the holidays but not exactly about them, destined to enjoy a long shelf life and forge their own traditions.

In that sense, the movie lives up to both halves of its title: “The Holdovers” gets a hold on you, while looming over most stories built around the simple idea that families are often defined by what you make of them, not what you inherit.

“The Holdovers” is expanding its release in US theaters November 3 and November 10. It’s rated R.

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