The Ref

The Ref (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★

On the night of Christmas Eve, Gus (Denis Leary), a serious-minded thief, breaks into the Willard mansion and accidentally triggers the alarm. Although he is able to make it out of the estate, the town is already teeming with cops and so he decides to hold Caroline (Judy Davis) at gunpoint in hopes of having a hostage and a safe house for the night. Little does Gus know that Caroline and Lloyd (Kevin Spacey), her husband, are on the verge of divorce. They bicker about everything, from directions one ought to take while on the road to what should be done about their juvenile delinquent of a son, Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.). Gus’ patience is tested to its limits.

“The Ref,” based on the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, benefits from its fast-talking script, executed with enough swagger and verve to make the trials of a rotting marriage, too often tackled with a dead serious precision, appear equally funny and bittersweet. The characters may be miserable but we, the audience, are having a good time.

The first time we meet Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur, they are right on each other’s throats. It isn’t enough that one has to be right; the other has to be wrong. Surprisingly, it is not unbearable to listen to them because it seems like they really do share a history. For instance, in the marriage counselor’s office, the couple can barely look into one another’s eyes. And when they do, it is about delivering a point coupled with an aggression that may or may not be deserved.

However, the picture flounders a bit with its second act, jumping from one perspective to another which features sketches of cops watching a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart, a lieutenant being blackmailed, a man in a Santa Claus suit getting drunk, among others. Although each has comedic punch and each thread eventually ends up on the couple’s doorstep, it comes across forced. I wondered if it had been better if we knew nothing about the quirky characters in town and just surprised us once they rang the doorbell.

The film also employs slapstick which, except for Gus’ unfortunate experience in the mansion, does not work. Every time someone trips or falls, I winced out of embarrassment: I was aware that the script is much better than its desperate attempts to get a laugh.

The addition of the Chasseurs’ extended family is a gift that keeps on giving. Connie (Christine Baranski), Lloyd’s sister-in-law, is a laugh riot because she is so bossy to her husband and children. Whenever Baranski belts out that commanding voice, everyone pays attention. It works because it does not feel like Baranski is forcing her character to appear mean. Being tough is just a part of her personality. And not once did the reactions of Connie’s two children, mostly fear, fail to tickle my insides.

Although the material takes a familiar turn toward the end which involves the Chasseurs’ dirty laundry being flaunted to their extended families, it is never boring. And despite the overwhelming vitriol being flung across the room and into each other’s faces, it becomes increasingly obvious that happiness—in this case, happiness in a marriage—is like any other thing that requires hard work.

Directed by Ted Demme, “The Ref” offers some insight behind its dark humor. It made me feel grateful that Christmas Eve with my family and relatives is exponentially more joyous than what these people is ever likely to have.

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