Only in a perfect world would Christmas be completely chipper and happy. More likely there’s some hurt and sorrow being buried in the eggnog. It might only be just a touch, but let’s face it, life isn’t always peachy – even on December 24th and 25th. For Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) in Ted Demme’s The Ref, Christmas is just another excuse to have at it with each other, trading verbal jabs at one another like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner trade physical shots do in The War of the Roses.
Another holiday is nigh and Lloyd and Caroline have almost had enough of one another. Their marriage has been in the crapper for years and has climaxed with Caroline’s admitted affair. The couple live a nice life in a nice house but there’s limitations. They’ve done it on Lloyd’s mother’s coattails, living in her house and having amounted a big debt with her as well. With the holidays fast approaching and the extended family on their way, their lives get complicated even more when Gus (Denis Leary), a cat burglar in need of a hideout, takes Lloyd and Caroline hostage in their own home. As Gus is trying to plan his getaway, he’s all of a sudden thrust into the role of unwilling mediator as the two continue to bicker.
Largely overlooked at the time of its release, The Ref is a marvelous vehicle for Leary. He gained notoriety for being crass, taking the tongue-in-cheek anthem “I’m an Asshole” to the top of the music charts. And outside of Dennis Miller, you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who can deliver a diatribe better than Leary. The Ref places him in a spot where he can overtly make commentary on the state of relationships while keeping it within the context of the film. His observations and snide remarks are a nice change of pace from the nostalgic happiness we’ve come to expect from most holiday movies.
While Leary’s attitude delivers the lines, The Ref‘s greatest strength is its writing. The screenplay, from Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, is witty and unforgiving. Yet it also has heart. The issues between Lloyd and Caroline are real-life issues and they’re not taken lightly. Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the writing is that although it’s blunt, it’s not aiming for shock value but rather it presents its case, makes a valid argument and gets out without being cruel or overly sentimental. Rather, it’s genuine and thought-provoking.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see how the careers of The Ref‘s stars have changed since the film’s release. Leary, who was billed as an up-and-comer has never really emerged. He’s been seen steadily since, but most always in the background. Spacey, on the other hand, has gone on to snag a couple of the golden boys for his work in The Usual Suspects and American Beauty. Both are wonderful here, Leary putting forth his best Angry Man and Spacey as the fault-riddled innocent-thinking middle-aged husband.
I don’t know why or how The Ref has slipped by relatively unnoticed over the years. Then again, I’ve only just seen it myself. I guess it’s one of those movies that doesn’t stand out. It isn’t marketed as a Christmas movie, thus limiting the chances of it getting dragged out and put in a prominent spot every December. But just because The Ref isn’t your typical Christmas movie doesn’t mean you should skip it. In fact, it should be just the opposite.
The Ref Gallery