Friday, December 21, 2012

Movie – The Ref (1994)

I was originally going to do my post on The Ref some time after Christmas, but I was reminded recently by another blogger that The Ref takes place at Christmastime.  I figured it would make more sense to post my recommendation for this film prior to the holiday, rather than after.  It might provide a change of pace for those folks who have overdosed on too many sweet, wholesome Christmas movies.  You see, The Ref is a caustically funny dark comedy that brings together three very different leads and succeeds brilliantly at making it work.

Lloyd Chasseur (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Caroline (Judy Davis) are a bickering married couple with a teenage son Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.).  The two of them are shown at a marriage counseling session where they severely overmatch the counselor Dr. Wong (cameo by, wait for it, B.D. Wong).  Dr. Wong tries not to take sides and about the only thing he succeeds in doing is to get them to unite in their disdain for him.

Meanwhile a criminal named Gus (Denis Leary) has broken into a house with his partner, but when they set off an alarm the partner runs off.  Gus is left trying to get away and he does this by carjacking Lloyd and Caroline on their way home.  He forces them to take him to their house so he can hide out while the cops are looking for him.  This event barely makes a blip in Lloyd and Caroline’s ongoing fight with each other.  Gus almost immediately regrets kidnapping the two.

When he gets to the house it doesn’t take long before he ties them to chairs, which still doesn’t make much of an impression on them.  He finds himself constantly having to break up the fight, sometimes by knocking the chairs over, one time by spraying them with water from the faucet, and several times by having to remind them that he has a gun pointed at them so they have to do what he tells them to.  Eventually he starts to referee their fight, pointing out the bullshit in the arguments from both of them.  They are driving him nuts.

Things are about to get a lot worse for Gus, though.  Jesse, who is a sociopath in training, returns home and Gus takes him hostage, too.  Next, Lloyd’s entire family is coming in for Christmas.  His brother (Adam Lefevre), sister-in-law (Christine Baranski), their two kids, and Lloyd’s mother Rose (Glynis Johns) all show up.  Gus can’t take all of them hostage, so his only way to get through the whole thing without getting caught is to pretend to be Lloyd and Caroline’s marriage counselor.  One of them looks at Gus and skeptically asks, “You’re a Wong?” He responds, “My mother was Irish.”  He gets asked, “And your father?”  He responds, “Wasn’t.”

If he thought Lloyd and Caroline were bad, the rest of the family increases his problems exponentially.  The mother is a real doozy, and the kids are little terrors who are more than happy to tie up their parents when Gus asks them to.  The fact that no one really worries where Jesse is (Gus has kept him tied up upstairs as insurance to get Lloyd and Caroline to go along with his charade), shows how dysfunctional the family is.  As Gus says at one point, “You know what this family needs?  A mute.”  Can Gus make it through Christmas without either going crazy or getting caught?

At the time this film was made all three of the leads were coming from very different career arcs.  Spacey was not yet a big name actor.  He had received some good notice for his performance in Glengarry Glen Ross, but movies like The Usual Suspects, Seven, and American Beauty were ahead of him.  He always seemed to play deadly serious, though.  Davis was coming in from also usually playing serious, but in “high falutin” period pieces like My Brilliant Career and A Passage to India.  The fact that either of them could be funny was new to many people, and as it turned out, they had great chemistry together.

Leary was my main reason for originally seeing this movie.  Sometimes just the concept for a film is enough to get me excited to see it.  In this case Leary had built a persona from his stand up comedy, and in small appearances elsewhere, for being someone who doesn’t take shit and even dishes it out to anyone who pisses him off.  And a lot of things pissed him off.  I loved the idea that this kind of guy would have to try to deal with a bickering married couple that barely acknowledged his existence.  True to expectations, Leary’s character of Gus is driven nuts by the situation he is in.  Leary got a chance to have a lead role in a film and he more than held his own with both Spacey and Davis.  Although a few professional critics, showing the kind of insight their profession is known for, predicted that Leary had no future in acting and advised him to stick to stand up.

The first hour of the film is laugh out loud funny.  In the last half hour director Ted Demme tried to take more of a moral turn.  In fact, Demme originally had an ending that test audiences hated, so he was forced to change it to what is now in the movie.  I feel this was definitely the right decision, but Demme said afterwards it was his biggest regret.  I think Demme should have trusted that people would get that this is a dark comedy and should have stayed true to that for the entire hour and a half.  Oh well.  It’s not enough to drag the movie down, thankfully.  There are still plenty of laughs in the last part of the movie; they are just not as biting as what was in the first hour.

If you’ve ever had a family get together at the holidays and wished that there was someone to make the people arguing sit down, shut up, and get over themselves, then this is the movie for you.  I highly recommend it.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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