- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by David Medsker
he Ref" is the one Christmas movie that I can relate to. At last, someone explored how unbelievably stressful getting together with your family for the holidays can be, and then turned that setup on its ear by adding an incompetent but feisty cat burglar. It's everything that the holidays are in real life; it's hostile, it's reckless, and features one person who's had just a bit too much to drink. Most of all, it's bindingly funny.
Denis Leary stars as Gus, a cat burglar who's just tripped an alarm and needs to lie low. Hanging out in a supermarket, looking for someone to abduct, he chooses Caroline (Judy Davis) and drags her back to her car, where her husband Lloyd(Kevin Spacey) is waiting. The tables are immediately turned on Gus when he realizes that his captives are inches away from divorcing (the opening scene with their marriage counselor is priceless), and they aren't going to be anywhere near as easy to control as he thought they'd be. Worse, Lloyd's family, including his barracuda of a mother Rose (Glynis Johns), are coming over for Christmas dinner, and their delinquent military school son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) actually looks up to his captor.
What makes "The Ref" work is how balanced each of the three main characters are in terms of virtues and flaws. You can see the reasons why Lloyd and Caroline hate each other, but you can also see why they fell in love in the first place. Leary's Gus, meanwhile, is forced to be the rational one, something that is clearly not his typical modus operandi, though that doesn't stop him from laying into the manipulative Rose ("Your husband ain't dead, lady. He's hiding."). Sure, the setup is preposterous, but family discord has never been funnier, especially when you factor in the always-great Christine Baranski as Lloyd's fed-up sister-in-law Connie. When Rose is offended by Connie's attitude and bellows, "Who the hell do you think you are?," Connie takes the opportunity toshow her mother-in-law just how cheap she is. "Slipper socks, medium," Connie snaps.
"The Ref" is even more interesting to watch now because it has since become easy to forget how truly funny Kevin Spacey can be. He is loosey-goosey here, holding his own against a very funny standup comedian. What he's done with this God-given ability, taking roles in snoozefests like "The Life of David Gale," "Pay It Forward" and "The Shipping News," is borderline tragic. Also tragic is that "Ref" director Ted Demme died in 2002 at age 38. His uncle Jonathan may get all of the credit, but between "The Ref" and "Beautiful Girls," Ted has made some significant contributions to film as well.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is a fantasy. "The Ref" is real, man. Family can really suck, and there is no greater, heartier laugh than something that's funny because it's true.