Almost two decades after director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti collaborated on the wine country comedy “Sideways” the two reunite for the 70s-themed “The Holdovers” about a cantankerous professor tasked with babysitting a handful of prep school misfits over the Christmas break. With superb performances by Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and newcomer Dominic Sessa, plus the perfect blend of comedy and drama, it’s easily an instant holiday classic.

Growing up in the ’70s, I can appreciate the effort Payne went to replicate the experience of seeing a movie in a theater during that wonderful decade; From the old school ratings tag that precedes “The Holdovers” to the grainy footage and occasional pops that replicate an era when all films were projected in 35mm. The only thing missing are the projectionist cue marks (usually a black circle in the right corner of the frame) indicating a reel change.

Giamatti plays hated professor Paul Hunham, a misanthrope who teaches Ancient History at New England prep school Barton Academy. Why is he disliked by the students? It could be the fact that he talks to them in a condescending manner, refers to them as “philistines” and “troglodytes,” and has no problem failing an entire class.

When student Teddy Kountze receives a “D” on his exam, he exclaims “Sir, I don’t understand” which is met with “That’s glaringly apparent” by Hunham who enjoys being snide with his students — to him, they are all a bunch of lazy entitled kids — when Teddy explains “I can’t fail this class!” Hunham replies, “Oh don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Kountze, I truly believe that you can.”

From his crass nature and problematic drinking (Jim Beam is always within reach), to his fishy smell (he suffers from Trimethylaminuria), and Amblyopia (lazy eye), Payne and writer David Hemingson go to extremes to make Hunham a challenging character to admire. The students may resent him, but the audience can’t help falling in love with the sad sack pedagogue who like the Grinch has a small heart that grows three sizes by the end of the story. Giamatti has a field day with his character.

It doesn’t get much better on the faculty end. Barton’s headmaster Dr. Woodrup (Andrew Garman) is not too happy with Hunham who refused to give the son of a Senator and the school’s biggest benefactor, a passing grade because, in his words, the kid was an idiot.

Every year around the holidays Barton takes a two-week winter break. The students who are stuck at the school because their parents aren’t able (or willing) to pick up them are called “holdovers.” The teachers take turns babysitting the students and this year the honor goes to Hunham. Woodrup’s Punishment?

Before the film turns into a holiday version of “The Breakfast Club,” the holdovers, which include an international Korean student, a bully, a Mormon with missionary parents, a jock who refuses to cut his hair, and a know-it-all, are rescued by one of the rich parents who whisks them away in his private helicopter for a quick skiing trip. Well, all but one.

Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), the know-it-all, gets left behind after Hunham can’t reach his parents to get their permission for the trip. Making matters worse is the fact that Tully was supposed to spend the holidays with his mother (Gillian Vigman) and her new husband (Tate Donovan) in St. Kitts but at the last minute, she called to inform him that she needed some “alone time” with her new husband. Yeah, it sucks. BTW, this is Sessa’s first film after being discovered as a student at one of the film’s shooting locations. He’s a natural.

So, Hunham, Tully, and the school’s head cook Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) are stuck with each for the break. The guys are irritable because they have to be there, but Mary chooses to stay behind because the campus reminds her of Curtis, the twenty-year-old son she lost to the Vietnam War. He graduated from Barton and was smart enough to get into an Ivy League school but since they couldn’t afford it, his plan was to enlist in the military so he could attend college on the GI Bill after his service. The “Dolemite Is My Name” actress steals the spotlight with a touching performance as the story’s voice of reason.

Three sad sacks stuck together make for some very funny and tender moments in Payne’s best film since 2013’s “Nebraska.” As expected Hunham and Tully antagonize each other, their battle of wits culminating in one of the film’s funniest scenes which finds Giamatti chasing Sessa through the hallways after his character tries to punish the student, “You just earned yourself detention sir” he explains, to which Tully remarks, “Being here with you is already one big detention!” then takes off running. “Son of a B—h, that’s another detention!” screams Hunham who starts chasing after the teenager. Hilarity ensues.

These are multi-layered characters, each with their own arc, leading to moments of melodrama, although Mary’s arc is not necessarily as transitional as Hunham and Tully’s. Yet all three are forced to operate outside their comfort zones which keeps the audience engaged.

The film’s third act involves a road trip filled with revelations that give the audience a better understanding of the three main protagonists. I’ll call it the “sentimental reel.” Being an Alexander Payne film, “The Holdovers” doesn’t include a “happily ever after” finale, but you can expect the writer-director’s signature “bittersweet conclusion.”

The snow-covered landscape, Christmas setting, a jazzy folk score by Mark Orton, and wonderful performances by the talented cast make this a must-see! “The Holdovers” is destined to become a cherished holiday classic.

(4 stars)

Now showing in theaters

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