25 Days of Christmas: The Ref (1994)
This review originally ran December 12th, 2009. The Ref is probably one of my favorite Christmas movies. It’s quirky, it’s dark, and it expertly sums up my family’s holiday get-togethers.
Tonight’s 25 Days of Christmas is a hilarious dark comedy that will make you appreciate your family, if only because they can’t be as insane as the one on the screen. It’s the 1994 Ted Demme film The Ref! I watched The Ref last year and fell in love with it. It’s directed by the late, great Demme whose made some of my other favorite films including Blow and Beautiful Girls. The movie is non-stop laughs, mostly at how dysfunctional everyone is, with amazing performances from Denis Leary and Kevin Spacey. If you enjoy your Christmas with a dash of darkness and a profanity laced chuckles, add this to your list.
Caroline and Lloyd Chasseur, (“It’s Chas-seur, it’s 18th-century French Huguenot,”) played by Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey, are a couple on the verge of divorce. When Caroline goes into the store she’s kidnapped by Gus (Leary), a burglar who is on the run. He forces them back to their home and ties them up while stuck hearing their constant arguing. On top of that, the Chasseur’s family is on their way for Christmas dinner, forcing Gus to figure out how to get out of the house with his life and sanity.
Every time I see The Ref, I identify with the character of Gus. Sure the man’s a burglar but he kidnaps the worst couple in the world; it’s like Home Alone for adults. The Chasseur’s open up the film having a marriage counseling appointment that devolves into a screaming match as they bring up every problem they have with each other. Gus says at one point that he’s kidnapped his parents! All the man wants to do is get out of town with his loot, but as if he doesn’t have enough problems, the Chasseurs have in-laws coming over who are probably worse than they are. The movie is hilarious but it’s when Mama Rose (Glynis Johns), appropriately enough referencing Gypsy, and Lloyd’s brother and sister-in-law show up that the fun really starts. Anyone whose been through a family gathering can identify with the grandmother who criticizes everyone (and buys them hideous sweaters), or the aunt who doesn’t think things are “Christmas-y” enough. Christine Baranski is hysterical as Connie, everything is “You’re driving me nuts, it’s Christmas!” She’s the character that always mentions how civil people should be on this holiday, yet she’s the one screaming.
When Gus enters the picture he makes them all see who they really are. Not only are Lloyd and Caroline having problems that they are both responsible for, but he just lets Rose have it (“Your husband ain’t dead lady, he’s hiding!”). He’s the independent observer who tells it like it is. Meanwhile, he’s disgusted with the wealth of the Chasseur’s feeling that since they have so much money they should be grateful. Underneath the hatred and humor is the theme of gratitude, what should a person be grateful for? Throughout the movie various characters say how “easy” the other person has it, yet that person is in a pretty poor predicament. No one is truly lucky, not the free-spirited Gus, or the wealthy Chasseurs. They’re all trapped in a private Hell where they all feel victimized. It’s once they stop being polite and start telling each other how they feel (yes I almost delved into Real World territory), that they can see the others’ point of view.
The movie could have been filled with a bunch of selfish, unlikable characters (and they are for the majority of the film), but the actors make you feel for them no matter how evil they get. I’ve loved Kevin Spacey since A Bug’s Life (I was a kid and could tell the acting talent), and he is just phenomenal in this. Lloyd is pretty much an off-shoot of his Lester Burnham character from American Beauty, but here Spacey gets some hilarious one-liners and is constantly astonished at how his wife so cavalierly tells everyone their personal business. Judy Davis dovetails perfectly with Spacey, going toe-to-toe with him the entire film. She’s a stone cold bitch, but there’s a shell that she’s created throughout the years. Leary brings most of the everyman humor as Gus, this is probably my favorite film of his. Other characters like the aforementioned Johns, Baranski, and Adam LeFevre as Lloyd’s brother, are also hilarious.
The Ref isn’t for everyone; it’s no Wonderful Life or Rudolph. It’s a dark, harsh look at families in turmoil, but if your family is like mine you’ll identify with their problems. It’s a Christmas movie that presents Christmas dinners for what they are, glossy smiles masking bitter contempt. The exteriors break down and everyone is left putting out their hatred and resentment on the table among the hideous Scandinavian cooking. It’s funny, its dark, and it’s my kind of Christmas film!
Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
OMG, This too is my favorite Christmas film ever. I am a sucker for a dysfunctional family film and this is one of the best. Thanks for your great review, it is a reminder to dust my DVD off and watch it again. My favorite line “What kind of therapy is this?”
I’m hoping to turn my family onto this Christmas. It’s definitely a hilarious movie for anyone whose been in those types of crazy family gatherings.