Christmastime can be a beautiful holiday celebration in which families gather together. The crisp chill of the winter air is matched by the warmth of the fireplace and of friendship and love. It is a time for happiness, delicious feasts and exchanges of heartfelt gifts.
Christmastime can be the most brutal time of the year. There are many who don't have any family to visit during the holidays. It can be devastating for a lonely person to watch so many others go about their business so happily. Not all of these family gatherings are as loving and warm as one would wish, and many look forward to them with trepidaation and loathing. Depression is common and the suicide rate peaks.
It is with this in mind that we look at The Ref. Directed by Ted Demme, this is about as black a comedy as one can expect from a mainstream film, not to mention a holiday-themed mainstream film. This is such an effective comedy that it is frequently televised, albeit in heavily censored form, during June and July. The holiday gathering is nevertheless its central theme. Think of it as the Christmas movie for the unhappy, the "anti-" Christmas film.
Scenes of small-town holiday cheer take place as the opening credits roll, but the film proper begins in the office of a marriage counselor. Dr. Wong is Asian and it's the mid-1990s, so he obviously is played by B.D. Wong. He is well-intentioned but far out of his league trying to repair the king-sized rift between Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur, played by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey. The pair seethe with hostility, most of which is directed at each other but some of which spills over onto Dr. Wong. Meanwhile cat burglar Gus, played by Denis Leary, finds that the mansion into which he has broken is full of unusual booby traps that include a spray nozzle loaded with cat urine. His getaway car has bolted, so Gus carjacks the Chasseurs and goes to their house to hide out. The couple's nonstop bickering quickly leads him to regret that move.
Confinement with the Chasseurs forces Gus to get involved with the complete mess that is their life. The uptight Lloyd never misses an opportunity to remind the flighty Caroline of her past infidelity. Their house and business are owned by Lloyd's mother, Rose, of whom the couple live in terror. Jesse, their son, is a delinquent who has been sent to a military school. It hasn't done him any good: instead of straightening out, he doctors photographs and blackmails his officers. Gus' freedom depends on his ability to deal with Lloyd's smug self-righteousness and Caroline's evasive wanderings. The film's title refers to the way he's forced to act a referee to their fights.
This would be effective enough as a premise, but there are complications. The manhunt has put the kibosh on Gus' getaway plans. His driver needs a couple of hours to procure an alternative, but family is on the way over for the dinner the Chasseurs are hosting. Gus has no choice but to ensure the Chasseurs' cooperation by taking Jesse captive, pose as Dr. Wong, and join the family for dinner as though nothing were out of the ordinary.
Dramatic elements become more prominent as the film evolves. We see the Chasseurs less as a tragically mismatched couple and more as a pair of frustrated idealists who have been beaten down by life's problems, the chief of which is Lloyd's monstrous mother. Jesse proves likable but misguided. He somewhat idolizes Gus, who is in turn disenchanted with his own lifestyle and warns Jesse against imitating him.
These issues come to a head over Christmas dinner. The Chasseurs air out their grievances with each other and stand up to Lloyd's mother. When she threatens to leave, Gus drops his cover and takes the remaining family members captive. Lloyd and Caroline take a liking to Gus and help him to escape.
The town's smaller personal dramas satirize upper-middle class suburbia. The police chief is frustrated with the spoiled locals and with his staff of incompetents, who botch the investigation. He is relieved of his position after he mouths off one time too many, but gets to respond with one of the great tell-offs of all time. A neighborhood Santa becomes drunk and belligerent.
The acting is uniformly superb. Leary is perfectly suited to play the cynical, wisecracking Gus. Lloyd is an earlier version of Spacey's American Beauty character. Judy Davis is equally good. A host of terrific character actors round out the cast. Of special note is Glynis Johns, who is nightmarish as Rose, the domineering matriarch.
The Ref is successful at mixing in some drama and adding depth to its characters. It does this without losing track of its primary function as a comedy. The repartee is amazingly acidic, but line for line, this is one of the funniest movies out there.