Paul Giamatti is so proud of the dinky Christmas tree he bought for "The Holdovers."

One of Roger Ebert’s last film reviews was of Barney’s Version, and I remember how he described Paul Giamatti’s character in the 2011 comedy: “Barney is not especially smart or talented or good-looking, but he is especially there.” One could fairly say that about everybody Giamatti plays, a gallery of defiantly ordinary guys who have made an uneasy peace with their unremarkableness. For more than 30 years this short, balding, pop-eyed, adenoidal actor has been a doughy force on our screens, even when playing weak men (or a weak monkey, in the case of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes). Behind his cranky façade there’s often a core of decency, unless there isn’t, like as an abusive husband in The Nanny Diaries or a slave merchant in 12 Years a Slave. One of the best things in Straight Outta Compton was the outrage in his eyes as the police make the members of NWA lie down on the ground and brush off his protests that these men are musicians rather than criminals. How his lead performance in Sideways didn’t win an Oscar or even grab a nomination is a mystery to me.

The Holdovers reunites Giamatti with his director from Sideways, Alexander Payne, and he gives what might be an even better performance. He portrays Paul Hunham, a history teacher at one of those ritzy New England all-male prep schools that have been there since the 18th century. In the waning days of 1970, a death in another teacher’s family has saddled Paul with the crap duty of staying on campus and babysitting the students who have nowhere to go over Christmas break. The boys are already miserable, and Mr. Hunham seems intent on making them more so, as he rousts them out of bed at 8 in the morning to run in the snow (“Without exercise, the body devours itself!”) and insists that they attend the classes on ancient Greece he continues to hold.

This is only the second of Alexander Payne’s movies that he has not written himself, and it is the first film written by TV scribe David Hemingson, whose resumé includes How I Met Your Mother and Black-ish. He does an excellent job of capturing Mr. Hunham’s overly erudite voice as he insults his students’ intelligence and can’t get through a conversation without referencing the Peloponnesian War. The half-dozen or so students shrinks to one Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) after a rich boy’s father drops in on his helicopter and takes the others for a skiing vacation in Aspen. The campus is deserted but for those two and Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cafeteria worker preparing their meals who’s mourning the loss of her only son in Vietnam.

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The leisurely pace helps reveal the loneliness haunting all of these characters over this Christmas break, as Angus finds out that the teacher’s past is both more and less impressive than he lets on, while Mr. H takes the boy to visit his father (Stephen Thorne), only to find out that the man’s address is a mental hospital. As always, Payne cuts the sadness with comedy, as in an interlude where Paul and Mary take Angus to a fancy restaurant in Boston only to find that the place won’t serve Angus cherries jubilee because he’s underage. They try to make their own cherries jubilee in the parking lot, but Paul ruins it by pouring too much booze on the dessert before setting it on fire.

The newcomer Sessa does well to hold his own amid this company and Randolph has been underappreciated since before the pandemic, but it’s Giamatti who delivers the star turn as this truculent man who finally learns to appreciate things beyond the teaching job that he hates but has clung to so tenaciously. His parting line to the headmaster (Andrew Garman) who used to be his student is a put-down you’ll want to save up for yourself. As Mr. Hunham leaves the school, you can’t help but wish him better times in the spring.

The Holdovers
Starring Paul Giamatti and Dominic Sessa. Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by David Hemingson. Rated R.