Directed by Ted Demme. Starring Denis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Glynis Johns, Raymond J. Barry. (1994)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 18, 1994
What with all the holiday tunage on the soundtrack, and the plethora of Yuletide gags scattered throughout the vitriol, something tells me The Ref missed its targeted Christmas release. No matter: an unrepentantly nihilistic 110 minutes of bile like this can play any time of year and still come across as acidic as ever. It's Christmas Eve, and professional burglar Gus (Leary) has just blown a residential jewelry heist in a big way. On the run from a police dragnet and separated from his queasy, alcoholic partner Murray, Gus unwisely opts for a hostage. What he ends up with are two hostages, though -- Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur (Davis and Spacey), a bitter, hateful husband-and-wife team so intent on their perpetual state of argumentativeness that they barely realize they've been kidnapped. Trapped in a house with these latter-day Bickersons -- and, before the night is over, their entire dysfunctional clan, as well -- Gus finds himself acting as the titular “ref” in their passionate domestic firefights. “Great,” he notes at one point, “I've kidnapped my parents.” Demme, whose last feature was the under-rated Who's the Man?, has this time out created a slick little comedy that plays havoc with established genre conventions. The Ref zips along at a frenetic pace, bouncing from hateful repartee between the Chasseurs and Gus and, as the story warrants, dropping in other, equally repugnant familial parasites. Much of the film's rampant nastiness comes from the genuinely inspired casting of Spacey and Davis: they're a mismatched couple whose domestic problems run the gamut from sexual to financial. Husband Lloyd is a mother's boy who never managed to gnaw his way through the umbilical strings and his shrewish wife seems unable to do anything but resent his minor failures. Spacey and Davis are great together; their bickering has the painful sense of being all too real, poison that's been flowing a long time. Leary rehashes his Bill Hicks persona for the umpteenth time, but if you can get past the blatant rip-off of his shtick, you'll find an inspired, virulent, often hilarious film that apparently was just too much for old Saint Nick.