Paul Giamatti is a poet of anger. His rage can be multifaceted. Sometimes it’s simmering. Other times it explodes, like when he shouts, “I’m not drinking any fucking merlot” in Alexander Payne’s Sideways—a delivery that comes to mind every time I glance at a wine list that happens to feature that blend.
At this present moment, it’s a good time to be a fan of Giamatti’s manic fury. Billions just ended its seven-season run on Showtime, so there’s all of that for you to catch up on. Giamatti has also joined the second-season cast of the Spanish demon series 30 Coins, currently airing on Max, where he plays a goatee-sporting bald billionaire.
But at this very moment, there is no better place to get your Giamatti fix than in Payne’s most recent film, The Holdovers. The Holdovers might be the most perfect Giamatti-delivery vehicle we’ve gotten in a long time, one that understands that he’s best when his talents for yelling are mixed with deep pathos. It’s also the one that could (and arguably should) finally win him an Oscar.
In the Christmastime period flick, set in 1970, Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a classics teacher at a fancy Massachusetts boarding school called Barton. Everyone hates Paul, and it’s not because he smells like fish (which he does) or has a lazy eye (which he also does). Paul is almost hilariously irascible. He wields insults with jolly fervor, taking down the smarmy teens in his class. He calls them “troglodyte” and “snarling Visigoths” while he hands out Ds and Fs, much to these little ingrates’ dismay.
The kids resent him for standing in their path as they try to slack off on their way to the Ivy League, but the adults at the school don’t like him either. He pisses off the headmaster by flunking a powerful donor’s son, and the other teachers find his stridency annoying. The fact that no one has any affection for Paul—and that he rarely leaves campus—gets him stuck with the job of watching the students who have nowhere to go over the holidays.
While there’s a group of these Christmas orphans at the beginning, eventually it’s just Paul alone with young smartass Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa) and Mary Lamb (the wonderful Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cafeteria manager whose son, an alum, was recently killed in Vietnam.
At first, Paul and Angus are at each other’s throats. Paul would rather be spending his time alone, reading Marcus Aurelius; Angus would rather be hanging out in Saint Kitts. Their animosity comes to a head when Angus goes on a spree throughout the school’s halls with Paul chasing after him. It’s a perfect example of Giamatti physical comedy. A perpetually tipsy pipe smoker, Paul is not in the best of shape, and he lags behind Angus, bellowing and puffing.
Angus’s heedlessness results in an unfortunate incident in the school gym that lands him in the hospital, but it also marks a melting of the ice between him and Paul. As Paul softens, Giamatti doesn’t change his personality. Instead, his long held resentments just boil to the surface. We learn that Paul was a scholarship student, and while he has a chip on his shoulder, he also prizes the education he got at Barton and the home it has provided him when he was rejected elsewhere. That makes him furious at the children who don’t take the opportunity seriously, which yields the bad grades.
Payne always had Giamatti in mind for the role of Paul, even before the script by David Hemingson was written—hence the character’s name. And Giamatti is uniquely equipped for the part. As the son of onetime Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti, he grew up around both academia and East Coast snobbery. It’s clear he knows the rules of this world, and all its injustices, intimately, even if he had the kind of privilege that might make the fictional Paul turn up his nose.
At the same time, it feels like Payne, going back to the days of Sideways, has always understood how there’s a heart underneath the bitterness that Giamatti is so good at projecting. His character in that movie is another intelligent yet unaccomplished man, who numbs his pain with booze as well as the knowledge that he’s smarter than everyone around him.
The easy thing to do is to cast Giamatti as a sneering villain, and he can do that very well. Call it the Big Fat Liar conundrum: Not a good movie, but it sure is fun to see Giamatti blue and screaming, just like it’s extremely enjoyable to watch Giamatti channel his dogged verve into a character with real power, like prosecutor Chuck Rhoades on Billions. But The Holdovers reminds us that Giamatti is best when he’s getting to the root of sad sacks— people who feel life has essentially let them down. You can pity these guys, but they don’t want your pity. They want your respect.