The Ref
THE REF. 1994

Director: Ted Demme

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

When the holidays role around & film fans play the game of "what's your favorite christmas movie" most will grudgingly admit It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is endlessly watchable, insist the Alastair Sim version of Scrooge (1951) has never been improved upon, & are fairly certain A Christmas Story (1983) is number one.

An array of standards from Miracle on 34th Street (1947) to The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) are apt to be suggested, & some smart-ass might even note that Citizen Kane (1941) & Night of the Hunter (1955) are at least partially Christmas stories, let us posit "anti-Christmas stories."

But unless a cynic is present, one of the greatest of great anti-Christmas movies, The Ref (1994), is liable to go unmentioned, though if it does pop to mind, everyone who has seen it will go, "Oh yeah, that's right, that's a top-tenner!"

The RefIt's just that mention of "Christmas" doesn't for everyone immediately bring one to think of the meanest most bitter things.

A dark & funny, sharply written, stunningly acted Christmas fable, Judy Davis stars as Caroline Chasseur, & Keven Spacey as her husband Lloyd.

They are the couple from hell, their relationship seemingly cemented with mutual disdain & an unebbing desire to one-up the other with angry, insulting witticisms. Their hostility only gets worse as they rush about doing last minute shopping & preparations for a family dinner later at their home.

The third leg of this dunking stool is Denis Leary as Gus, in what has thus far proven to be the role of his lifetime, as he's never before or since been as good as this, but here he keeps pace with two world-class actors.

He's the housebreaker who is stealing stuff on Christmas eve when his well-organized criminality goes unexpectedly awry due to a combination of "the cat-piss alarm system" & a badly chosen alcoholic partner (Richard Bright). He ends up taking Caroline & Lloyd hostage, tying them in chairs, & waiting for his partner to make a phone call that will insure his get-away.

Meanwhile, a small town unused to crime is having a great deal of political infighting around the sheriff's office resulting in a battle of state verse local police authorities racing to catch the Christmas burglar, who has become a minor cause celebre on local television news.

What Gus hadn't counted on is that even at the point of a gun, individual human nature doesn't much change, & he can't stop these two wealthy, privileged, appalling people from expressing their domestic hate every time their mouths open.

The RefGus finds himself in the titular role of The Ref & slowly losing his mind as a house-to-house police search closes in on him & his hostages won't stop fighting with each other about everything under the sun.

For a patch of the film it's a little like a three-person play so well written it has none of the usual problems of movies that are really meant to be seen as live stage plays.

But a large supporting cast eventually including visitors to the the Chasseurs' planned Christmas eve dinner party keeps it from remaining stagey for too long, & finds an expanding base of humor that is both intimate between the three, & expansive through the entire town.

When the dinner party is in progress & Gus is posing as the Chasseurs' marriage counselor Mr. Wong, as just one more guest at the dinner party, the tensions between them become subtler but no less biting & ferocious. And with Mom (Glynis Johns) & other relatives present, we get to see the larger context for how these Bickersons came about in the first place.

A few "Important" issues arise with their teenage son (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.), who has become a juvenile delinquent in rebellion against his self-absorbed battling parents, & relates at least as well to Gus as to his parents, if not better.

And the news reports that a local millionaire eccentric -- well, a lunatic -- has upped the bounty for the Christmas bandit from a hundred thousand to two hundred thousand dollars. For that much money Gus can't count on even his drunken partner to help him escape town; he's worth too much money. He's trapped in suburban Hell & can't get out!

How it all resolves is a tough, wicked comedy of fools, each just barely likeable enough that you do kind of hope the spirit of Christmas at least partially blesses their black hearts. It's not one of those "you'll laugh, you'll cry" Christmas comedies so much as it is "You'll laugh, you'll flip them the bird." It's a unique superb film that stands well apart from the general run of Christmas classics.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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