Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Year-End Movies I: The Holdovers and Ferrari

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers.

The review of The Holdovers contains spoilers.

In The Holdovers a prodigiously bright but desperately unhappy teenager with a checkered academic history and the sour, supercilious Ancient Civilizations teacher at his boarding school are stuck with each other’s company over Christmas week of 1970, when the campus, a few hours’ drive from Boston, is deserted except for these two, the cook and the caretaker. Initially there are four other “holdovers” but the screenwriter, David Hemingson, employs a wobbly plot twist to scatter them so that he and the director, Alexander Payne, can home in on the teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the boy, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), and the cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Hemingson is a TV writer who’s just graduated to features, but he must have chalked up thousands of hours watching shamelessly manipulative coming-of-age movies and movies about damaged middle-aged men who finally come in out of the emotional cold. Not a scene in it feels like it emerged from anyone’s authentic experience, yet Hemingson is an expert at strong-arming the audience. Mary, an African American widow from Roxbury, Mass., took the job at this elite prep school so that her son could get a good education; unlike many of his peers the boy made good on his educational opportunities but wound up a Vietnam casualty. Angus lies to his classmates about his happy home, then admits that he lives with his mother and her new second husband, who went off on their delayed honeymoon instead of the family Christmas he was counting on. He tells Hunham that his real father is dead and later reveals that’s a lie – that he’s in a psychiatric ward in Boston. Hunham is an alumnus of the school and has been teaching there for decades; it turns out that his old headmaster gave him the job out of kindness after Hunham was thrown out of Harvard for copying another boy’s exam sheet. It was a frame-up: the other boy was the perpetrator but came from a wealthy family so the dean believed his story. The culmination of all this heartstring-tugging is a trip to Boston that Angus implausibly convinces Hunham to supervise when, out of the blue, he stops treating the kid like his enemy and starts being nice to him. I guess you don’t need character logic when you’ve effectively aimed a gun at the audience’s head. Naturally we get a big scene in the psychiatric hospital. Naturally the kid gets in trouble with his uninsightful mother and asshole stepfather and Hunham throws himself under the bus to save him from being thrown out of yet another boarding school.

What’s weird about the general enthusiasm over The Holdovers isn’t that it’s so sloppy, with narrative details that seem glaringly wrong – like an upper-middle-class high school kid and a teacher in a 1970 setting who curse freely at each other, and an elite prep school’s making not the slightest effort to provide a comfortable environment for the holdovers – but that it feels like it was beamed in from another planet. Alexander Payne is too much of a misanthrope to pull off a movie like this. Except for Sideways, he’s made his career directing (and often co-writing) movies about characters we can’t believe he feels anything for. That wasn’t a problem in his debut picture, Citizen Ruth, which was a satire (and a clever one), or even in his follow-up, Election, where, adapting Tom Perrotta’s novel, he tried to make a comedy about high school life the way Preston Sturges might have done. It was smug, but it didn’t demand that we connect emotionally to the characters. But Payne’s other movies, like About Schmidt and The Descendants and Nebraska, come across as phony, and you can’t figure out why he made them or why you should be sitting through them. When you revisit Sideways, which came out in 2004, between About Schmidt and The Descendants, it seems unlikely to the point of being bizarre. Once upon a time Payne managed to direct a film with full-hearted characters; even the overgrown frat boy played by Thomas Haden Church whose behavior is so outrageous is somehow likable. There’s a patina of intelligence in those other Payne pictures, and the leading actors (Jack Nicholson, George Clooney, Bruce Dern) lend the films an aura of seriousness. But the material in The Holdovers is so contemptible that the disjunction between it and Payne’s usual unspoken claim that he’s engaged in a project of presumed merit is jarring.

Maybe I should have said that the film seems to have been beamed in from three different planets, since Giamatti, Sessa and Randolph don’t appear to be acting in the same movie. Sessa and Randolph are bad, and Sessa is also distinctly unpleasant to watch, though it’s impossible to say whether that’s a case of unfortunate miscasting or negligent direction. Giamatti’s problem isn’t his acting; it’s that the writing is so inconsistent that you come away from the movie still not understanding his character – why he’s so mean to his pupils while also evidently dedicated to turning them into scholars. It’s clear enough in Terence Rattigan’s play The Browning Version and the two movie adaptations, with first Michael Redgrave and then Albert Finney as the classics teacher for whom the passing of the years and a miserable marriage and the way he’s been marginalized by the administration have driven a wider and wider wedge between his love of his subject and his ability to convey it to his students. But in The Holdovers you can’t even see Hunham’s love of his subject, nor is there any evidence that he ever reached out to the boys in his classes. I’d say that David Hemingson saw The Browning Version and didn’t get it, but I suspect I’m giving him too much credit.

Penélope Cruz in Ferrari.

Michael Mann’s Ferrari is set in 1957, when the celebrated automobile manufacturer Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is beset by challenges to his company’s financial well-being, his marriage and his image and reputation. His wife Laura (Penélope Cruz) finds out that he has had, since the war, a mistress, Lina Lardi (Shailene Woodley), with whom he fathered a son now positioned to be his heir, his legitimate son having died of muscular dystrophy a year earlier. All of this turmoil coincides with the Mille Miglia race, which culminates in a tragic accident when Ferrari’s most gifted young driver, Alfonso De Portago (Gabriel Leone), hits an obstacle on the road that the press is more than willing to interpret as a defect in the car’s tires.

The accident sequence is an astonishing piece of filmmaking: it feels like the worst nightmare you’ve ever had, but the style is realist. The problem is that the movie is so glum overall that this scene isn’t in sufficient tonal contrast to the rest of. Enzo talks about the terrible joy of racing, but Mann never lets us in on it. There’s plenty of adrenaline in the racing scenes but the thrills are saturated with dread; Mann fails to provide a sense of the freedom the drivers must feel, and because he shoots everything in close-up and medium shot we don’t even get to enjoy the magnificent Italian scenery. This must be the most claustrophobic racing picture ever made; there are so few long shots in the two hours and forty minutes that I could count them.  And according to my watch it took an hour and twenty minutes for Driver to break into a smile. His acting is competent but dull; I couldn’t get myself to care about this relentlessly solemn protagonist. The women walk off with the picture – Cruz contributes a fierce portrait of the wounded, grieving wife and Woodley is sensitive and grounded as the mistress. 

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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