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Don’t ask Alexander Payne why he’s a “connoisseur of curmudgeons”

Director Alexander Payne (L) and actor Paul Giamatti (R) on the set of “The Holdovers,” their new film together.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Filmmaker Alexander Payne is a connoisseur of curmudgeons.

These and other difficult people dominate the eight features of the celebrated Nebraska writer/director, from “Citizen Ruth” in 1996 to “The Holdovers,” his Oscar-buzzed latest film.

It reunites him with actor Paul Giamatti for the first time since they struck gold with “Sideways” in 2004. “The Holdovers” was the People’s Choice Award first runner-up at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, a key indicator of awards potential.

Payne, 62, loves stories about flawed humans. His expressed intention is to “approximate real life much more than movie life” in his films, which he modestly and accurately describes as “nice, small, little human comedies.” He punctures egos and exposes foibles but seeks to do so with empathy and humour.

Yet, during an interview with the Star at TIFF, he admitted he’s “a little cruel” to Giamatti’s grumpy professor character at the start of “The Holdovers,” which is set in New England during the Christmas holidays of 1970.

The camera reveals a well-used tube of hemorrhoid cream inside the bathroom of Paul Hunham, the unloved ancient history teacher at Barton Academy boarding school.

The tube is a visual clue about the pain in the butt we’re about to meet. The overbearing Hunham is crankier than usual because he’s obliged to spend Christmas with “the holdovers,” students marooned by family or geographic circumstances, in particular one young malcontent played by newcomer Dominic Sessa.

Payne expressed both satisfaction and contrition about the hemorrhoid joke. He was pleased I noticed it; he was also feeling guilty about mocking Hunham.


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