In Downtime's first TIFF dispatch, our humble correspondent reviews new crowd-pleasers from Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater.
any insist that the Toronto International Film Festival feels “weird” this year because the SAG-AFTRA strike has kept celebrities from traipsing the red carpet or the downtown area, but because I never really cared about autographs or sightings, it feels basically the same to me. Still the same cheesy bumpers and ridiculous advertisements before public screenings, still the same bars and restaurants, and still the same toxic mixture of stress, caffeine, and alcohol that keep the press core afloat during the ten-day festival. While the films this year have been more of a mixed bag than not, there are still plenty to recommend in these trying times.
On Downtime, I’ll be writing up some of those flicks that will soon be coming to a theater, and eventually a streaming service, near you. (I provide release date information if it’s available.) While my opinions might be occasionally salty, all of the films in these dispatches are worthy of your attention. Join me on a journey through the wondrous world of “fall festival season” so that you may also have opinions on films that might entertain, bemuse, or potentially irritate your closest friends.
The Holdovers (Alexander Payne)
With his latest film The Holdovers, director Alexander Payne borrows, steals, and slightly reworks elements from a few different genre playbooks. The film’s setting—a prestigious New England preparatory boarding school for boys—broadly recalls classics of the genre like Dead Poets Society (1989) and Scent of a Woman (1992). Befitting its time period, winter 1970, Payne goes to certain lengths to visually recreate the aesthetic of a Hollywood comedy-drama from the early ’70s (think Harold and Maude ) complete with digitally added film scratches, an opening ratings card to commemorate the MPA’s then-new classification system, and a faux-retro Focus Features studio logo. In turn, The Holdovers pastiches a handful of familiar, frequently parodied 20th century micro-genres—the class conscious prep-school film, the reluctant mentor/mentee film, and to some extent, the “war at home” Vietnam film. But it also neatly fits into the Payne oeuvre, which has examined cantankerous middle-aged men whose cynical dispositions are tested by unexpected circumstances for over two decades.
In this case, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), the widely loathed Ancient Civilizations teacher at Barton Academy is the embittered man in question. His supercilious, uncompromising attitude precedes him as he relishes handing out failing grades to the dumb, entitled scions of wealth that enter his classroom. As punishment for the ethically sound though professionally blinkered choice to fail a senator’s son, whose acceptance to Princeton University was subsequently rescinded, Paul has been tasked to supervise a handful of students forced to remain on campus for winter break. Despite technically being on vacation, Paul tries to instill discipline into the holdovers by forcing them to run laps in the freezing cold and get a jumpstart on next semester’s homework.
However, borderline-miraculous circumstances conspire to isolate Hunham with only one student for the majority of the break: smart(-ass) troublemaking loner Angus Tully (newcomer Dominic Sessa), whose mother and stepfather can’t be reached in time to give permission for him to take the literal last chopper out of Barton with the four other students. Hence, Paul, Tully and the Black school cook Mary (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), still grieving the loss of her Barton graduate son killed in Vietnam, are stuck on the grounds together. Naturally, the trio slowly forges close bonds rooted in their shared feelings of social alienation and discontent, and Paul, who softens over the course of the break, helps Tully out of an adolescent psychological rut.
Payne has slowly softened his patented mean streak over the course of his career, trading in the funny low-blow potshots from his youth for a slightly more patient approach to the human race. With The Holdovers, however, he strikes a distinctly crowd-pleasing tone, possibly a populist correction to the negative critical and commercial reception of his previous feature, the expensive, ambitious, and underrated climate change-themed film Downsizing. The coming-of-age plot combined with the throwback aesthetic and the Hal Ashby-esque pop-rock soundtrack all feel designed to render The Holdovers as the “film for adults” that’s nevertheless fit for the whole family.
The Holdovers might be a nostalgic ride, but it helps that Payne lends his performers the requisite time (a two-hour-and-change runtime) and space to imbue their characters with enough psychological realism to slightly transcend their clichéd origins: hard-ass teacher, troubled kid, grieving mother, etc. Payne and screenwriter David Hemingson understand the importance of witnessing characters exhibiting personality, i.e., wasting time and talking shit, or perform narratively off-task actions so that they feel like genuine people, a courtesy that extends to a large supporting cast, most of whom flit across the screen for brief periods of time. (Character development, they used to call it.) Tully comforting a younger Korean student who wets the bed in the night doesn’t diminish from his sarcastic demeanor or the rage he feels towards his narrow-minded peers, but it clarifies the reasons why Paul inevitably warms up to him. Similarly, Paul’s innate sympathy for the underprivileged, like when he loudly chastises an obnoxious student who criticizes Mary’s cooking, illuminates his moral compass long before we discover the youthful roots of his class resentment, which Tully, whose privileged background ensures he’ll never have to serve in Vietnam, comes to respect. A sitcom writer by trade initially tasked to write The Holdovers as a TV pilot, Hemingson admirably restrains himself from turning every character detail into a psychological explanation, e.g., Paul’s barely remarked-upon alcoholism, which feels primarily like a product of the film’s time and place even as it’s also the character’s coping mechanism for lifelong regrets.
It obviously helps to have an actor like Giamatti residing at the film’s center. His all-but innate capacity to convey loneliness and melancholy steeps his character with decades of disappointment, and a wry smirk or a downcast glance from speaks volumes about his emotional impotence. He and Randolph both feel right at home in The Holdovers’ wintry setting, but it’s Sessa who surprises as the smart aleck who seems incapable of staying enrolled in private school. He communicates Tully’s squirrely anger and underlying grief through flailing physical gestures and a shit-eating grin, and though the script ultimately reveals the reasoning behind his character’s rebellious attitude, he makes his found family relationship with Giamatti and Randolph believable long before that. (The film’s best joke might be that Paul and Tully take the same anti-depressant.)
The Holdovers’ emotional potency depends on its characters’ credibility because their narrative arcs are fairly predictable. There are no real surprises in the film’s back half, even though the trio embark on a fateful road trip to Boston that will set the stage for a final sacrifice, the mechanics of which are fairly trite. Yet, The Holdovers mostly wears its sentimental streak well, even if one or two montages cross into mawkish territory, because Payne’s precise direction, which actually does productively imitate ’70s campus dramas, and his understanding of existential plight go a long way to keeping the film enjoyable even when it stays strictly on schedule. He proves it’s possible to have fun on an old ride.
The Holdovers will be in limited release starting October 27 followed by a wide release on November 10.
Hit Man (Richard Linklater)
Meanwhile, with Hit Man, director Richard Linklater explicitly returns to a crowd-pleasing mode for the first time in a long while. Linklater and actor Glen Powell loosely adapted writer Skip Hollandsworth’s 2001 Texas Monthly story about Gary Johnson, a part-time community college professor who frequently posed as a hitman for undercover murder-for-hire investigations conducted by the Houston police department. Described by Hollandsworth as the “Laurence Olivier of the field,” Johnson became acclaimed for his chameleonic ability to fool everybody who attempted to hire him—rich or poor, young or old—including a socialite who was married to an heir of a vast oil fortune. But in his real life, Johnson was basically the nondescript type, someone who lived alone and stuck to a strict routine that included taking care of two cats and tending to a garden.
Powell stars as Gary in the film, and he and Linklater retain some real-life details: the boring home life with the garden and the cats (named Ego and Id, like Johnson’s own), the professorship (though it’s a regular position in the film), and befitting Powell’s remarkable movie-star charisma, the talent for performance and persuasion while undercover. Beyond that, Linklater and Powell take plenty of Hollywood liberties, some small like switching up the location to New Orleans (likely for the city’s generous tax credits), but others massive, like the film’s main romantic plotline. When Gary, posing as the laidback hunky “Ron,” meets frightened housewife Maddy Masters (Adria Arjona), who wants to kill her cruel husband, the two hit it off and Gary convinces Maddy not to go through with the crime. The two quickly fall into a hot-and-heavy physical relationship with Gary staying in character as Ron, but their fling becomes dangerous when Maddy’s husband starts inquiring about wanting to snuff out his ex-wife.
Hit Man’s appeal almost squarely falls on Powell’s shoulders, who initially captivates by donning different goofy personas while taking down a coterie of colorful would-be murderers. Linklater asks you to accept that the magnetic, handsome Powell could ever be considered dispassionate or undesirable, but he basically sells the early scenes when he’s championing his philosophy students during lectures on Nietzsche or droning on about birding. But Hit Man hits a different stride when Powell gets to flex his chemistry with Arjona. While the “sexiness” of Hit Man might be a tad overstated, Powell and Arjona’s flirtatious energy keeps the film moving at a steady, sultry clip, and most importantly, grounds it when Linklater and Powell’s plot starts taking many absurd twists and turns. Their palpable attraction ensures that a late screwball-esque sequence when Gary and Maddy hoodwink the cops while being wiretapped becomes a career highlight for everybody involved.
With the occasional over-lighting and the quasi-sitcom score, Hit Man might superficially look and feel like standard action-comedy fare, but Linklater leaves enough of his fingerprints visible to clear him of charges of anonymity. The numerous scenes of Gary explaining the process of sting operations in cheeky voiceover feel in line with the doc-style sequences in Bernie (2011) and Apollo 10 ½ (2022); Linklater even includes an essay film-style montage that details the pop cultural history of hitmen to illustrate their fantastical nature despite their popularity in cinema. Hit Man’s most interesting ancillary comes during the courtroom scenes when Linklater makes a fairly convincing case that Gary, despite his genial nature, has actually abetted the police in a massive entrapment scheme. Is Gary tricking angry, hapless civilians into committing crimes just by being a good actor? Linklater doesn’t push the line of thought much further, but the blackly comic direction Hit Man eventually takes doesn’t dispute the muddled nefariousness of Gary’s actions.
Linklater’s mainstream fare, like the kids-classic School of Rock (2003}, has endeared himself to many, and surely Hit Man will do the same, but this side of him has never been my favorite. For such an accessible arthouse filmmaker who frequently dabbles in hangout movies complete with bong-hit philosophy, these occasional stabs at traditional entertainment always feel like he’s self-consciously driving himself to the middle of the road. (For my money, watching Everybody Wants Some!!, his spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused  released in 2016, feels like drinking cold beer on a hot day, but many people didn’t seem to agree with me.) But while I can quibble with Hit Man’s occasional dialogue lapses or the too-cute final scene, it’s still the work of a man who will gladly film multiple classroom scenes just so he can gleefully discuss 101 concepts like “the construct of the self” and the ego-id-superego triad. Linklater retains his smooth style and signature voice even while courting the cheap seats, which is ultimately something to admire.
Hit Man has no official release date yet, but will almost definitely be coming to a theater (or, potentially, a streaming service) near you soon.