Rotten Tomatoes (3/5), Metacritic (6/10), Letterboxd (3/5), Imdb.com (6/10), TMDB.com (3/5)
Heartwarming films for the holidays are something we’re all supposed to love, right? Well, if you’re talking about the works of directors like Frank Capra, George Seaton, Michael Curtiz and Chris Columbus, you’d be correct. But, since it’s been so long since we’ve had releases of that quality, in recent years, viewers hungry for such movies have been glomming on to anything that even remotely approaches such titles, whether or not the accolades are deserved. And that, in my view, sums up my feelings on the much-celebrated new feature from director Alexander Payne. This tale of a curmudgeonly, condescending, middle-aged, fuss-budget prep school teacher (Paul Giamatti) assigned to babysit a group of rambunctious students who are unable to be with their families for the year-end holidays has a premise with considerable potential that, unfortunately, is squandered by a narrative that feels loosely stitched together and ultimately comes across as patently undercooked. Indeed, what could have been a fun-filled romp a la a Christmastime take on movies like “Dead Poets Society” (1989), regrettably, comes up decidedly short. Admittedly, the film has its share of modestly funny and warm, fuzzy moments, but many of the scenes don’t flow smoothly from one to the next, creating a storyline that feels forced without delivering the goods to make a release like this work. While it’s true that the film succeeds (surprisingly) at depicting the mostly one-dimensional characters’ requisite personal evolution over the course of the picture, that almost-accidental accomplishment is seriously overshadowed by a series of plot elements that largely feel thrown together, incorporated without a terribly great amount of thought and an undeniable lack of cohesiveness. And, to be honest, the picture’s most interesting character is the academy’s chief cook (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whose richly layered persona (and deftly nuanced performance) runs circles around those of its other two principals (Giamatti and Dominic Sessa as one of the stranded students). It’s disappointing that a director as talented as Alexander Payne has churned out a project as half-baked as this one is (particularly one that comes across as self-satisfied with itself as this offering often does) when compared to previous titles like “Nebraska” (2013) and “The Descendants” (2011). And would-be viewers should be wary of many of the inflated claims and awards season buzz being showered on this offering. But, in an age in which moviegoers are looking for pictures that provide the kind of holiday cinema comfort they so desperately crave, it’s understandable that such viewers might be drawn to a film like this. It’s just such a shame that they won’t find what they’re looking for in this one.