The Ref is one of the best comedies you’ve never seen. Released in 1994, this thoroughly hilarious, dark Christmas movie stars Denis Leary as Gus, a typically successful cat burglar, who after a botched robbery is forced to kidnap a couple and hide out at their home in an affluent Connecticut suburb to avoid the police. Thinking he’ll be moving along quickly, once his alcoholic schlub of a partner secures transportation to get them beyond the police dragnet, he gets more than he bargained for when he realizes that he kidnapped the family from hell. Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur, played to perfection by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis, respectively, are a married couple on the verge of divorce who drive Gus insane with their incessant bickering throughout their captivity on the night of Christmas Eve. Just after the kidnapping, while on the way back to their house, Lloyd blows through a stop sign, and when called out on it by Caroline, he denies that it was even there. This leads to an argument that makes Gus’ head spin. “Great. I hijacked my fuckin’ parents,” he says from the backseat, baffled.
The arguments between the two that you will experience throughout the movie are balanced between witty bards and inner rage, which make for some very funny outbursts. This is displayed especially well in the film’s opening scene, which places the pair in front of a marriage counselor by the name of Dr. Wong (B.D. Wong of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and Jurassic Park fame), who attempts to help them hash out their issues. The plot thickens when their conniving son Jesse returns home from military school, where he’s running blackmail on one of his teachers, played by J.K. Simmons, who makes his big screen debut in the film. Things are further complicated when Lloyd’s family, led by his unholy witch of a mother, arrive for dinner. They’re aware that the couple is going through counseling, so Gus must act as their mediator for the night. He tries to act as a buffer between them, futilely attempting to keep up appearances as their therapist. That charade unravels as the night proceeds, and as the police close in while he waits for his partner Murray to figure out their escape plan. The movie is well-written, highly quotable, and also laden with profanity, so put the kiddies to bed before you pop this one in.
The dialog and performances are what really carry this movie. Spacey is at his best here, and that’s saying a lot, since the bar is set extremely high as far as his roles tend to go. His sarcastic delivery is biting and a joy to watch if that’s your sense of humor, and Davis balances him out with plenty of humor and emotion of her own. This is definitely also one of Leary’s best roles, as despite the tough exterior, he’s the bad guy you end up caring about. Watch out for a great cast of supporting actors, including a snarky local police lieutenant who clearly hates his job, a drunken neighborhood Santa Claus, and Lloyd’s mother, played by Glynis Johns, who steals several a scene in the second half of the movie, with her scornful, filterless lines that will make you laugh and hate her at the same time. The ending that you see in the film, which I won’t ruin for you, is not the original finale that was filmed. Test audiences reportedly booed and hissed at that initial closing, so director Ted Demme changed it. If you like a side-splitting comedy, The Ref will undoubtedly become a yearly Christmas viewing tradition for you, and is still just as funny any other time of the year.