September 14, 2023

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Holdovers,” “Pain Hustlers” & “Woman Of the Hour”


These haven’t been glory days for the Toronto Film Festival.  The WGA/SAG strikes dampened the vibe, of course–of the 27 films I saw at TIFF, only 4 screenings featured appearances from the cast.  Beyond that, for whatever reasons, TIFF also wasn’t favored by the studios with some of the major releases that instead opted for other festivals, like Maestro, Priscilla, The Killer, Poor Things and Ferrari.  (The challenges will continue beyond this year, as TIFF’s long-time lead sponsor Bell has announced it will no longer be providing support starting in 2024.)  Despite the diminished glamour and buzz, not to mention a noticeable number of empty seats at some shows, the festival mustered on, and offered plenty of titles worth seeing (and some that were less so).

THE HOLDOVERS (Focus/Universal – Nov 10):  Alexander Payne’s first feature since 2017’s ambitious but dismal Downsizing is both set in 1970 and a self-described tribute to the character-driven films of that era.  When the holiday season arrives at a New England private school that year, a few students aren’t able to travel, and the school needs to provide supervision and sustenance to the stragglers.  Thus Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti), an officious and pedantic history teacher, and kindly cafeteria manager Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), are designated to remain on the grounds.  Their main charge is Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), a smart and angry student of Hunham’s.  David Hemingson’s script doesn’t go anywhere particularly unexpected–all of the trio have private demons (Mary’s son died recently in Vietnam, and Paul and Angus have secrets that will be gradually revealed), and despite their unwilling intimacy, they’ll learn life lessons from one another and bond before the end credits roll.  Despite the predetermined nature of the journey, Hemingson handles the steps along the way with pleasing care and a relaxed wit.  Payne is on much firmer ground here than in the high-concept Downsizing, and while the characters aren’t as complex as in Election or Sideways, Payne keeps a firm hand on the pacing (the editing is by Kevin Tent) and garners lovely low-key period work from cinematographer Eigil Byrld and production designer Ryan Warren Smith.  Mostly, Payne is content to sit back and guide his actors, who all provide superb performances.  After years of the one-note pugnaciousness of his character on Billions, it’s a pleasure to see Giamatti stretch his muscles for a character with a meaty arc.  Randolph continues to be one of the undersung glories of American movies, and Sessa, in his first screen performance, proves himself fully capable of holding the screen with his accomplished co-stars.  The Holdovers is high-grade, small-scale, emotionally involving storytelling, and one hopes the 21st century market can find a place for it.

PAIN HUSTLERS (Netflix – Oct 27):  David Yates’s film isn’t the first story we’ve gotten recently about the skullduggery of pharmaceutical companies peddling opioids to unknowing patients.  Unlike in Dopesick or Painkiller, though, the Pain Hustlers script by Wells Tower and Evan Hughes is so heavily fictionalized that the names not just of the characters, but of the company and the medication had to be changed.  This gives Pain Hustlers more narrative freedom, but in this case it also leads to a reliance on some overfamiliar tropes.  As told here, the story’s center of gravity is Liza Drake (Emily Blunt), a down-on-her-luck single mother barely holding down a job as a stripper who grabs onto the half-serious proposition of Pete Brenner (Chris Evans) that she look him up for a job as a pharma rep.  His company markets a fentanyl-based spray that gets its painkiller into the bloodstream of cancer patients faster than the other drugs on the market, but they’re foundering because the competition has all the local doctors locked up.  It turns out that Liza is a natural wiz at selling, and playing the not-necessarily-legal angles.  Specifically, she exploits a loophole that allows doctors to be paid for “speaking engagements,” and essentially bribes everyone in town into writing prescriptions.  Soon enough she’s the head of marketing for a company heading for a billion-dollar IPO.  This part of Pain Hustlers is great unethical fun, putting us on the side of the underdog sharks as they devour their prey, with madcap supporting roles for Catherine O’Hara as Liza’s mother and Andy Garcia as the eccentric head of the company.  Of course, the piper will eventually need to be paid, and the film subsides into a morality tale about Liza’s daughter’s epilepsy and Liza’s development of a conscience.  Blunt is a powerhouse until the script drains her character, and she and Evans have tremendous chemistry.  Yates, best known for his many films in the Harry Potter franchise, maintains energy throughout, but he doesn’t quite choose a lane between satire and cautionary tale, so some scenes feel overcooked, and others not fully developed.  Pain Hustlers works like a charm for a while, but ultimately doesn’t find the right dosage.

WOMAN OF THE HOUR (Netflix – TBD):  Anna Kendrick’s first film as a director (written by Ian MacAllister McDonald) is based on a bizarre true-life factoid:  in the midst of his decade of serial killing that encompassed the 1970s, Rodney Alcara (played here by Daniel Zovatto) appeared on The Dating Game–and was chosen by contestant Cheryl Bradshaw (Kendrick).  Kendrick and McDonald have ambitiously placed this anecdote at the center of a story that cuts between various of the crimes committed by Alcara over the decade, creating a story that’s both funny and chilling, and emphasizing a misogyny evident even in non-lethal interactions, like The Dating Game itself.  Kendrick’s directing debut is a notable one:  often, when an actor directs for the first time, we tend to excuse limited technical achievements in favor of the performances elicited from the cast and a grasp of story.  Kendrick, though, is a real filmmaker.  Woman Of the Hour looks great, with cinematography by Zach Kuperstein (who shot Barbarian), and production design by Brent Thomas and costumes by Sekyiwa Wi-Afedzi and Brooke Wilcox that cover everything from street people of the era to the packaged glamour of its network game shows.  Despite the scope of its narrative, it also moves like a racecar at 89 minutes.   Even the comic scenes in the film have an effective undertaste of discomfort, and Kendrick knows how to turn up the tension when necessary.  And she does indeed work beautifully with her actors.  She doesn’t linger unnecessarily on her own performance, while Zovatto is frankly terrifying as Alcara, and Tony Hale is a memorable sleaze as the host of The Dating Game.  The film also gives space to those victimized by Alcara, with fine work from Kelly Jakle, Nicolette Robinson and Autumn Best.  The pieces of Woman Of the Hour don’t always fit together neatly, and there are times when it could have offered more depth and detail, but it firmly establishes Kendrick as a director to watch.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."