Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores holiday absurdity through the criminal lens of ‘The Ref.’
Merry December! This month’s Essentials are going to lean towards the holiday season in different ways with one or two actual Christmas movies and others that are simply Christmas adjacent.
Christmas comedies come in different flavors from the sweet to the sarcastic, the respectful to the raunchy, and once in a rare while we get one that manages to be all these things at once. Our long-dead ancestors had It’s a Wonderful Life to scratch that particular itch, and the rest of us have the late Ted Demme’s mid ’90s romp, The Ref.
The film opens with the deceptive serenity of a beautiful track from David A. Stewart’s score confirming the holiday setting and implying a peaceful holiday is in store, but reality quickly intrudes as we meet a couple in severe distress. Caroline (Judy Davis) and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) are in marriage counseling with little hope of reaching the light at the end of the tunnel. Insults, accusations, and references to Lloyd’s penis as inedible garnish fill the air and drown out the holiday cheer, and as the pair head home the decision is made to get a divorce.
Fate intervenes though in the form of a thief named Gus (Denis Leary) whose failed attempt to rob a neighbor’s house has left him trapped in this small community awaiting a call from his partner in crime. He carjacks the couple and forces them to take him to their home, and it only takes a short drive with them continuing to argue even at gunpoint for him to realize his mistake. “Great,” he says. “I hijacked my fucking parents.”
It’s a joke, but the script (by Marie Weiss and Richard LaGravenese) does a great job taking that idea as a way to pair Gus – an adult criminal on the run from police – against the couple’s son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.), whose time at a military academy hasn’t stopped his arc toward illegal activity. He’s currently blackmailing an instructor (J.K. Simmons) and plans on running away the first chance he gets. He also stole the baby Jesus from the town’s manger display, an act parroted in a way when Gus grabs a cookie version of the miracle child and takes a bite. “Jesus,” he says with a grimace.
Gus ties up the family while waiting for his friend, but what should be a peaceful and quiet abduction is anything but. The couple’s constant fighting reveals their deep-seated issues and tests his already thin patience. He’d prefer to toss them in a closet and forget about them, but Christmas Eve has other plans for them all. Local cops, a drunk Santa, and Jesse’s instructor all make unexpected visits, but its the extended family coming for dinner who push an already absurd situation into verbally violent catharsis.
Demme directed Leary’s stand-up special, No Cure for Cancer, and it’s clear the pair shared a sensibility in their approach to comedy. Gus is essentially Leary with a rap sheet – he’s foul-mouthed, aggressive, short-tempered, and constantly smoking – but he’s also funny as hell. His delivery of lines both scripted and (presumably) improvised cuts to the bone, but even he’s shocked by the cruelty on display between these family members.
“You know what this family needs?” he asks. “A mute.”
Happily for us, there’s no mute to be found and instead we get a steady stream of sharp dialogue that slowly shifts from mean-spirited (and frequently laugh out loud) take-downs to legitimately touching realizations of love and forgiveness. It’s a Christmas movie after all, so this is to be expected, and credit goes in a big way to Davis and Spacey for making the transition more affecting and believable than treacly and rote.
Both actors convince in their anger and sadness. Lloyd has given up on himself and his dreams, and Caroline had an affair – both have damaged their relationship, but the question is whether or not they’re beyond repair. Their session with Dr. Wong (an uncredited B.D. Wong) is a bust, but when Gus pretends to be their therapist as a way to explain his presence to Lloyd’s visiting mother and brother’s family it leads to honest breakthroughs and redemption. They sell their feelings as much through expression as through dialogue, and one scene in particular – they’re tied together and she accidentally brushes her hand against his garnish in an attempt to get free – offers a sweet truth about their affection for each other. Again, it’s a movie and is therefore expected, but the film sells the arc with more heart and brains than comedies typically attempt.
It helps too that the couple have a shared target in Lloyd’s mother, Rose (a terrifically despicable Glynis Johns), whose grip on her sons has made them neutered adults. Her wealth has kept the family in line and afraid to rock the boat lest they get knocked out of her will, and it’s a dynamic familiar to anyone with a grandfather-in-law whose past career in the oil business has created a trough where children and grandchildren come on their knees to feed. No? Just me? Huh.
An odd subplot involving a local police chief on the outs aside, the script keeps things tight and fast-moving. (It doesn’t hurt that Raymond J. Barry plays the cop in question.) Side characters weave in and out of the main narrative keeping Gus on his increasingly-frustrated toes, and our sympathy for his plight grows slightly ahead of the family’s. There are generic take-aways involving family and forgiveness and more specific ones about standing your ground – the third act feels at times like an extended riff on the detached garage end scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – and the movie leaves viewers with exactly the warm feeling a holiday film should.
Demme chased The Ref with the under-appreciated Beautiful Girls, the forgettable Life, and the Johnny Depp-starring (back when that was a good thing) Blow before passing away in 2002. It’s a small filmography, but it’s one with the common themes of reflection and redemption – and that’s not a bad state of mind to be in this holiday season.
“Welcome to the suburbs.”
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