If you’re tired of the non-stop parade of saccharine Christmas specials or the glut of sappy seasonal programming on the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels, then may I recommend The Ref (1994). Directed by the late Ted Demme and starring his pal, comedian Denis Leary, this film is a wonderfully acerbic comedy with a heart that actually delivers on its zany premise of a small-time cat burglar forced to pose as a marriage counselor to a bitterly dysfunctional couple on Christmas Eve. For once, hilarity does ensue.
We meet Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) discussing their sex life (or lack thereof) to their marriage counselor (B.D. Wong). Caroline complains that they haven’t had sex in a long time and when they did it was a routine, going-through-the-motions act. She even has dreams of her husband castrated and being served up buffet-style. Lloyd is disgusted with her admissions and is clearly not thrilled with discussing the intimate details of their sex life with a stranger. His contempt for her hangs so thick in the air that you could practically cut it with a knife. Lloyd and Caroline have issues that could give the couple from The War of the Roses (1989) a run for their money.
Meanwhile, Gus (Denis Leary) is breaking into an expensive-looking house only to get sprayed with cat urine when he trips an alarm connected to the safe he’s trying to crack. He’s then attacked by a dog and beats a hasty retreat. In a nice touch, Demme shows us just how tough the dog is when Gus whips a pool ball at it which the canine catches in its mouth and then crushes with its teeth. On the run from the police, Gus takes Caroline hostage while she’s in a convenience store and forces her and Lloyd to go back to their house where he plans to hide out until the heat cools off. Gus gets a preview of what he’s in store for when, en route to their house and despite being held at gunpoint, Lloyd and Caroline continue to argue amongst themselves. An exasperated Gus mutters, “Great. I hijacked my fucking parents.”
Lt. Huff (Raymond J. Barry), the town’s police chief, has his hands tied with deputies who are inept and hopelessly inexperienced. The town elders (led by Robert Ridgely as a pompous blowhard) are breathing down his neck because they’re worried about the thief running loose in their nice, affluent small-town. You really feel for the chief who is stuck with incompetent deputies, is bullied by the rich townsfolk and muscled off the case by the state police. Raymond J. Barry wisely doesn’t play him as an idiot but as a guy good at his job but surrounded by idiots and mired in local politics.
Once home, Lloyd and Caroline’s teenage son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.) shows up. He is a burgeoning blackmailer currently framing one of his teachers (J.K. Simmons) at the military academy he’s attending with incriminating photographs. Things get interesting when Lloyd’s mother (Glynis Johns), a real piece of work/battle axe, and her bossy daughter-in-law (Christine Baranski) with her family show up for dinner. Gus poses as a marriage counselor. Naturally, much of the film’s humor is derived from the thief’s blue collar attitude colliding with this snobby family.
The real villain of the film isn’t Gus but Lloyd’s shrew of a mother. She’s always complaining or telling others what to do and the real fireworks occur when Gus puts the woman in her place. The Chasseur family dinner is one of the film’s major comic set pieces as everyone wears these ridiculous headpieces consisting of a crown with several lit candles on them. Lloyd, Caroline and Gus try to maintain a facade of normalcy while the thief attempts to bluff his way past Lloyd’s mother’s nagging questions. Kevin Spacey has a blast feigning happiness in an obvious way and Judy Davis is a lot of fun to watch as her character gets progressively drunker, almost as if she’s auditioning for a lead role in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Denis Leary plays ... well, himself, or at least the angry guy persona from his stand-up comic routine at the time. Nobody plays pissed off quite like or as well as Leary, like when he chews out his sad sack accomplice Murray (Richard Bright) over the phone, slamming the receiver repeatedly on a countertop for effect. Leary also gets some of the film’s choice lines, like when he breaks up the incessant bickering between the Chasseurs by telling them, “You know what this family needs? A mute!” Leary’s bitter thief speaks his mind which inspires Lloyd and Caroline to open up and finally get down to the root of their problems. Leary is gracious with sharing screen time with the other actors and Demme knows when to let Spacey and Davis take front stage while Leary observes. Despite the marketing that placed an emphasis on Leary, The Ref is really about Lloyd and Caroline as they learn to finally listen to each other.
Spacey and Davis don’t play Lloyd and Caroline as just superficial, materialistic WASPs but two people who, at one time, had real dreams and aspirations (like running a restaurant) but over the years life hasn’t worked out as they would have liked. Occasionally, you can see this regret play across their faces and it takes Gus to finally confront them for the Chasseurs to deal with their issues. Only a year away from acclaimed turns in Seven (1995) and The Usual Suspects (1995), Spacey turns a solid performance as a frustrated man dominated by the women in his life. Matching him at every turn is Davis, who had a great run in the 1990s, as his disappointed wife.
The Ref was written by Richard LaGravenese and his sister-in-law Marie Weiss, inspired in large part by their own families. The dinner scene, in particular, came from their own experiences. LaGravenese said, “Both Marie and I are Italian Catholics who married into Jewish families, so we do have those big holiday dinners.” Furthermore, he said, “Families always have these unspoken dramas, and at holidays everyone is supposed to sit down and pretend that none of that is going on. Part of the fun in writing the dialogue was completely breaking down the veneer and finally having everybody say what they wanted to say.” Weiss actually began writing the script in 1989 after she and her husband moved from New York to California. Inspiration came from an argument she had with him and she thought, “wouldn’t it be great if there were a third party to step in and referee?”
Weiss wrote several drafts and consulted with LaGravenese in 1991. They took the script to Disney. The studio approved the project within 20 minutes. Made for less than $12 million, the film was produced by the most unusual candidates: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, known for making some of the most popular Hollywood blockbusters of the 1980s. Simpson described the film’s tone as “biting and sarcastic. Just my nature.” LaGravenese spent a year rewriting the script until he finally got “tired of doing rewrites for executives.” Nine months later, Demme and Leary, fresh from working together on No Cure for Cancer, a stand-up comedy special for Showtime, expressed an interest in the project. This prompted LaGravenese to re-enter the fold. He worked throughout the production and even beyond when test audiences responded poorly to the film’s original ending – where Gus turns himself in – and a new one was written and shot in January 1994.
The Ref did not perform as well at the box office as Leary would’ve liked and he blamed how the studio marketed it. He said, “They did me like the MTV guy. And they shortchanged what the movie was all about.” The film received mixed notices from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “material like this is only as good as the acting and writing. The Ref is skillful in both areas.” Rolling Stone magazine’s Peter Travers praised the performances of Spacey and Davis: “They are combustibly funny, finding nuance even in nonsense. The script is crass; the actors never.” In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James praised Leary: “For the first time he displays his appeal and potential as an actor instead of a comic with a sneering persona.” However, the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson was not so taken with the comedian: “A stand-up comic trying to translate his impatient, hipster editorializing to the big screen, he doesn’t have the modulation of a trained actor, only one speed (fast) and one mode of attack (loud).” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman felt that the film was “crushingly blunt-witted and monotonous in its celebration of domestic sadism.”
Gus is sick and tired of rich people that think they’re entitled to everything and isn’t afraid to call them on it. He can’t understand why these people are pissing and moaning about their trivial problems when they have so many things going for them but The Ref goes to great lengths to humanize Lloyd and Caroline. In this respect, the film does something that few Hollywood films have the balls to do: draw attention to the differences between the upper and working class. Demme’s film also shows that not everyone is happy during Christmas. Being with family, especially those you don’t like very much, can be a trying experience and test anyone’s patience as old grudges and bad memories surface.