'The Ref' Review: It's Denis not Dennis
The Ref may be my new favorite Christmas film. It features excellent performances by all three leads and a killer premise that doesn't wear thin. It's the quintessential "unconventional" Christmas film that strikes closer to home than most "sincere" Christmas films out there. The real reason it may be my new favorite is because it's funny but with a purpose.
The movie follows Denis Leary who plays Gus, a petty thief on the run after the final score of his career. However, once his getaway car leaves him at the scene of the crime, he takes Kevin Spacey and Judith Davis hostage as a means of escape. Spacey and Davis play the Chasseur's, a couple that is as dysfunctional as it gets who are enrolled in couples therapy. However, instead of escaping he takes them hostage in their own home where hilarity ensues.
By nature, the film is a comedy but it deals with some actual issues that are relatable to anyone who has ever been in a relationship. Spacey and Davis seem more apt to fight with one another even while Leary is pointing a gun at their faces than to get along. They bicker and fight, taking shots at one another for a multitude of reasons: being subservient towards one's mother, sexual prowess, or even having extramarital affairs. The dialogue is believable and at no point seems contrived or unnecessary. Davis and Spacey are fully fleshed out characters with real problems that are apparent with each argument they get into.
The comedic aspect of the film comes from Leary, not surprisingly. During the 90s, Denis Leary was the comedian; he had multiple stand-up specials on HBO and was an icon in the comedy community. His acerbic wit and brash tone made him fit in with the "fuck you" attitude that embodied the 90s. His special No Cure for Cancer is one of my favorite stand-up specials and it still holds up almost twenty years later.
Leary's Gus is the eponymous ref in the film, thrust into the role by pure accident. He tries to keep the peace between Spacey and Davis to seemingly no avail. He has to hold himself back from shooting them both just to get them to shut up. Along the way though, he begins to break through to them the way no other couples therapist could, sorry B.D. Wong. He gets them to actually begin to act like a couple again not like two people who are together because they have to be.
The other comedic aspect of the film comes from the many side characters that populate the town that the Chasseur's reside in. The town Santa is a kind old man who gets drunk and completely ruins a family's Christmas party while the city's police force are the most inept group of cops ever put to screen. There is even a scene that involves a group of grown men having no idea how to operate a VCR with hilarious results. Spacey's family are also quite hilarious with his mother being the standout. His mother is passive aggressive to a ridiculous degree and she takes it out on her family. Spacey, once he finally sticks up to his mother, has a fantastically quotable retort to her passive aggressive bullshit.
My only issue with the film is the subplot with their son, played by Robert J. Steinmiller Jr. It is mentioned that he is a troublemaker and was sent away to military school due to his mischievous behavior. The insinuation is that his parent's fractured relationship resulted in the way he acts but it isn't fully explored. It is an afterthought that is too neatly tied up near the end of the film to matter and doesn't really add anything to the film.
If you're looking for a Christmas film about a dysfunctional family around the holidays that is more comedy than drama, then check out The Ref. The performances from Spacey, Davis, and Leary should be enough to draw most in, but the expertly crafted dialogue and comedic premise are what make it a true classic.
Final Say: Watch It