Thursday, December 19, 2013

Watch This: The Ref

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

The Ref (1994)
Directed by Ted Demme

There are Christmas movies that reaffirm the importance of family and friends, revealing that the true gift is time spent together in joy and harmony with the ones you love.  There are Christmas movies that show us how important it is to be kind to others, not just during the holidays, but all year round.  There are Christmas movies that remind us we should be celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, not focusing on the materialistic desire for presents.

Then, there is The Ref.

Starring actor/comedian Denis Leary in his first lead role, The Ref follows hapless cat burglar Gus (Leary) after a botched Christmas Eve robbery in a small Connecticut town.  Having triggered an alarm, and looking to hide from the police, Gus jumps into the car of Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur (portrayed by Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis), a married couple on their way home from a counseling session.  Gus orders them to drive him to their house, where he hopes to lay low while he plans his escape.  He quickly realizes that he kidnapped the wrong couple, as Lloyd and Caroline's incessant bickering offers him no respite or time to think.  Exasperated, Gus tries to force an end to their arguments: "From now on, the only person who gets to yell is me. Why? Because I have a gun."  However, even under the threat of violence, they remain at each other's throats.

Gus's problems grow with the arrival of teenage son Jesse Chasseur, home from military school, and the later arrival of more relatives for Christmas Eve dinner.  Gus gradually begins to soften, learning that his only way out of the situation is to act as mediator between Lloyd and Caroline until he can escape.

The premise begins to wear a bit thin in the third act, and there are no big surprises in the concluding scenes; the film ends pretty much how most viewers would expect.  However, it remains engaging because of a funny, fast-paced script and strong performances from the talented cast.  Spacey and Davis are particular standouts, bringing an articulate ferocity to their characters' barbed exchanges.  It's also fun watching Glynis Johns, best known for playing the kindhearted Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins (1964), in the role of Lloyd's domineering, mean-spirited mother (Gus aptly sums up her character: "I know loan sharks who are more forgiving than you").  Director Ted Demme proves very adept at handling a talented ensemble, a skill he would put to good use in his next film, the woefully underrated Beautiful Girls (1996).

The Ref is by no means a great film.  However, like the masterful Bad Santa (2003), it's a profane, darkly funny alternative to standard Christmas entertainment.

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