December 1, 2011

25 Days: The Ref
by docsmartypants

The Ref (1994) Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Denis Leary

For our first film in the 25 Days series, I was joined (via phone) by my excellent friend Erin. It seemed fitting since I think Erin was with me the first time I saw this movie, waaaaay back in the high school Dark Ages, and we have watched it together many times since then.

The basic plot of The Ref, for those of you who haven’t seen it, goes like this: After botching a burglary on Christmas Eve, Gus (Leary) is abandoned by his skittish partner-in-crime and has to take a bickering husband and wife (Spacey and Davis) hostage, hiding out in their home while he tries to evade police. When their troubled son comes home from military school and their hellish in-laws arrive for Christmas dinner, Gus has to pretend to be the couple’s therapist, but ends up acting more like a referee as the family tensions finally reach boiling point.

I know the plot is contrived. In fact, it sounds downright silly when you try to sum it up. But somehow this movie works. Maybe it’s the cast, or the occasional glimmer of brilliance in the writing. Or maybe it’s just that it never takes itself too seriously. One thing’s for sure, the presence of Denis Leary in a lead role means that The Ref probably sets some sort of record for most occurrences of the F word in a Christmas movie.

Two of the supporting actors almost steal the show. Glynis Johns plays Lloyd’s deliciously controlling mother (“Why isn’t my portrait over the fireplace?”), probably the only member of the family that I can’t summon any sympathy for. And I love Christine Baranski as Lloyd’s abrasive sister-in-law. When her daughter suggests that maybe the police will let Gus go free in the spirit of Christmas, she snaps back, “That is not the spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Christmas is either you’re good, or you’re punished and you burn in hell.”

The movie is full of little lines like that that always make me laugh. At one point, as the reality of his situation is sinking in, an exasperated Gus declares, “I’m in hell. Connecticut is the fifth ring of hell.” I couldn’t agree more! If it was up to me Connecticut would be banished to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But that’s a subject for another post.

Still, the appeal of The Ref remains hard to quantify. When I asked, Erin had trouble summing up her love for the movie beyond “Denis Leary is hilarious” and “Kevin Spacey has the best monologue ever.” She’s right though. In fact, that monologue includes one of our all-time favorite film quotes, when Lloyd, finally pushed past the breaking point by his overbearing mother says: “You know what, Mom? You know what I’m gonna get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross. So every time you feel unappreciated for all your sacrifices you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”

HA! Come on, admit it. There has been a time in your life where you could have used that line on someone. Maybe it wasn’t your mom, or even a family member. It might have been a colleague, or a friend, or a casual acquaintance, or your arch enemy. But we’ve all been there, and that’s part of what makes this movie so enjoyable.

I think people like holiday movies about family tension because they can relate to them. Almost everyone can recall a time when a well-intentioned gathering of friends or family has gone a bit pear-shaped. The holidays are stressful, and they bring out both the best and worst in all of us. Movies like The Ref remind us that it’s normal—it happens to everybody. At the same time, these films let us say, “Man, at least it never got that bad!” Unless yours did, in which case I suggest you write a screenplay.

Tune in tomorrow for Day 2: It Happened on 5th Avenue

posted under Media
2 Comments to

“25 Days: The Ref”

  1. On December 3rd, 2011 at 12:16 am Stacey Says:

    I hate Connecticut, too.

  2. On December 7th, 2011 at 4:12 pm Noel Says:

    It really really is a brilliant monologue. That part about the cross never fails to crack me up.

    I love this movie.

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