By Christian DiMartino
The worst Christmas movies really lay the syrup on thick, what with all the hugging and the learning and the fah-lah-lah. I can go for it in small doses, but that’s where I draw the line. Ted Demme’s The Ref, perhaps the best Christmas movie you’ve never seen, is a Christmas comedy of anger and frustration, with the slightest (and it’s very slight) bit of hugging and learning. Needless to say, I love it and appreciate it for that very reason.
My mother is English, and has a very particular sense of humor. She loves this movie dearly. My mother’s mother has even more of a particular sense of humor, and from what I’ve heard, when she viewed this movie, her laughter could be heard from across her condo. Which warms my heart, because at times, The Ref could have the same effect on me. The film is often hilarious. The key to the film’s success lies not just in its writing, which has some of my favorite one-liners, but also in the delivery. This is, indeed, a Christmas comedy, but it’s a Christmas comedy about a criminal on the run, but it’s also a Christmas comedy about a criminal on the run who also has to handle a couple so close to divorce, it’s shocking they don’t kill each other. The result is a movie that turns out to not only be funny, but effective, while also being a showcase for three actors in top form, but in different ways.
Kevin Spacey (yeah, it’s kind of difficult to write about him these days) and Judy Davis play Lloyd and Caroline, a couple pretty much constantly at each other’s throats. As the film unfolds, more and more is revealed about these two and how they ended up this way, yet we’re told from the start that Caroline has had an affair. Caroline also reveals that Lloyd’s mother (Glynis Johns) is an absolute monster who holds her money and power against them. Both of these details are revealed during a couple’s therapy session on Christmas Eve (kind of surprising any couple’s therapist would have sessions on Christmas Eve, especially considering these two). So yeah, they have their problems.
On the other side of town, a burglar named Gus (Denis Leary) finds himself on the run after a robbery gone horribly wrong. So yeah, he has his problems. Yet all of these problems collide whenever Gus threatens Caroline by gunpoint at a grocery store, and he forces her to hide him til the police disappear. Little does he know the chaos that will ensue between Lloyd and Caroline, and thus with their grievances, along with the town being on lockdown due to said robbery, Gus hatches an escape plan while trying to maintain peace among this horribly unhappy couple.
All of this is pretty funny. Doesn’t sound like it, sure, but it is, because of the way that these three actors play off of each other. It almost plays like a stage play at times, with Spacey and Davis giving it their all as they try to undermine one another, while Leary constantly reminds them that if they don’t shut up, he’ll put a bullet in them. It all works, yet The Ref really cooks whenever Lloyd’s family comes to visit for Christmas dinner. The act that the three of them have to put on is a hoot, and the sequence that follows, in which all of the tensions bubble to the surface, is both funny yet it also has its fair share of truth.
The Ref is that rare “feel-bad” Christmas movie, and that’s what sets it apart from many of the rest.