“The Ref” (citywide) puts the devil into business with Disney. An enthusiastically mean-spirited comedy about family problems and a rather extreme way to solve them, it has as much fun being malicious as Snow White did being squeaky clean.
Anchored by expert performances from Denis Leary, Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey and the appropriately biting script and direction, “The Ref” is one of those films in which everyone has a verbal stiletto out for everyone else. Though it doesn’t manage to hold its edge all the way to the end--that darn Disney influence finally proves too strong--its comic venom is refreshing for as long as it lasts.
“The Ref’s” setting couldn’t be more mainstream: the Norman Rockwell town of Old Baybrook, Conn., on the night before Christmas. Several creatures are stirring, including a skilled cat burglar named Gus (Leary), hoping to make the proverbial last big score, and the Chasseurs, Lloyd (Spacey) and Caroline (Davis), a couple that after 15 years of marriage can’t go 15 seconds without attempting to rip each other’s throats out.
Squaring off before the blissful local marriage counselor (a just-so performance by an unbilled B. D. Wong) the Chasseurs engage in some dazzlingly hostile bickering, tossing knives at each other like an experienced circus act. First prize goes to Caroline for her vivid description of a dream in which various parts of her husband’s anatomy are served up like a salad, but Lloyd is not without verbal resources of his own.
Meanwhile, Gus’ robbery is going comically wrong, and he ends up needing a house to hide out in to avoid a police dragnet. Naturally he ends up with the Chasseurs, who are so bilious they keep on eviscerating each other even though their lives are in danger. “Oh my God,” says Gus when he realizes what he’s into. “I hijacked my parents.”
The best part of “The Ref” involves this neat reversal of expectations, with the nominal hostage-taker ending up at the mercy of the out-of-control hostages, with Gus having no choice but to attempt to bring order out of the Chasseurs’ chaos. “The only person who yells is me,” he screams in exasperation, brandishing his weapon. “Only people with guns get to yell.”
That line is typical of the dark spirit screenwriters Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss bring to “The Ref,” a spirit that director Ted Demme, who recently did a Leary concert film, is not shy about conveying.
And aside from the forever out-of-sorts comic, well cast as the exasperated burglar, “The Ref” benefits from having actor’s actors like Davis and Spacey in the leads. Both are impeccable, but not even Spacey can match the panache of Davis when she disdainfully calls sex with her husband “not really noteworthy.”
Forcing Gus to referee the Chasseurs’ marital battles is a clever conceit, and even though other elements of the film are amusing--like a Keystone Kops police force that would rather watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” than solve crime--when the picture strays from that central premise it tends to lose comic focus.
“The Ref’s” main subplots have to do with who is coming to the Chasseur’s Christmas Eve dinner, everyone from bad-seed teen-age son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) to the rest of Lloyd’s family, especially his rich and grasping mother Rose (Glynis Johns) and Connie the relentless in-law (Christine Baranski).
Both Johns and Baranski are quite funny, but this flatter-the-rich-relative plot doesn’t have the originality and bite of the rest of the picture and echoes the main outlines of the just-released and much less amusing “Greedy.”
“The Ref” gets it into its head to actually solve all of the Chasseur family’s multifarious problems--in a typical Touchstone/Disney sort of manner--which is a nice thought except that it forces several of the actors to make regrettably serious speeches. Still, it’s not every movie that can create so much comedy out of misery, and it’s “The Ref’s” bad intentions that finally carry the day.
Denis Leary: Gus
Judy Davis: Caroline
Kevin Spacey: Lloyd
Robert J. Steinmiller: Jesse
Glynis Johns: Rose
Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Ted Demme. Producer Ron Bozman. Executive producers Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, story by Marie Weiss. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel. Editor Jeffrey Wolf. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Music David A. Stewart. Production design Dan Davis. Art director Dennis Davenport. Set decorator Jaro Dick. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.
MPAA rating: R, for language. Times guidelines: Its premise is of an armed hostage situation; it includes much strong language.
* In general release throughout Southern California.