Second Glance: The Serious Holiday Comedy of ‘The Ref’

This 1994 Christmas flick was marketed as a Denis Leary movie. It's much, much more.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, we recommend one of our favorite, under-loved Christmas movies, Ted Demme’s The Ref.

“My God, is this is a Christmas story?” asks Christine Baranski, just past the midway point of The Ref, Ted Demme’s 1994 holiday comedy – a question that’s worth asking the film itself. It’s a hard R-rated story of a thief, the eternally bickering married couple he kidnaps, and the family dinner he takes over at gunpoint; it’s presumably the only Christmas movie that includes the line “Mary, gag your grandma.” Its sentiments toward the season are best encapsulated by another line of offhand dialogue: “Fuckin’ Christmas, fuckin’ cocksuckers, Jesus!”

It was, if anything, a film ahead of its time; its cynical attitude towards the holidays predates Bad Santa by nearly a decade (and there are numerous other echoes of that film in this one), and its expert pivots between comedy and drama are more early 21st century than late 20th. It hit theaters in March of 1994, and if you think that sounds like a stupid time to release a Christmas movie, you’d be right – The Ref was a commercial failure, though it found something of audience later on home video. The release date wasn’t the only thing its distributor, Disney’s Touchstone division, muffed; it was marketed solely as a Denis Leary movie, banking on the cult following of its star to sell tickets, down to a teaser trailer in the style of Leary’s beloved fast-rant MTV spots, which were also directed by Mr. Demme.

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Leary plays Gus, a luckless burglar whose easy-breezy Christmas Eve job in a Connecticut mansion goes awry – he barely makes it out alive, and has to hide out while avoiding a citywide manhunt. In desperation, he threatens his way into the home of Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline (Judy Davis), a couple right on the edge of a divorce, and thus capable of arguing about anything and everything. They’ve been doing it so long, it’s become the one thing they’re good at doing together, each equally skilled at sharpening a barb like a shiv and plunging it in with a smile. They’re one of those couples who not only fight, but seem to look for fights, to thrive on them. Gus finds himself playing the middle (hence the title), at least until the rest of their terrible family shows up.

This could all make for easy, lazy sitcom shenanigans, but The Ref’s screenplay is smarter than that. It was first written by Marie Weiss, who then brought in her brother-in-law Richard LaGravenese, the Oscar-nominated writer of The Fisher King. It runneth over with quoateable exchanges (Caroline: “How can we both be in the marriage, and I’m miserable and you’re content?” Lloyd: “Luck?”) and tasty one-liners (Caroline tells her husband, “I was frightened! Humans get frightened because they have feelings! Didn’t your alien overlords tell you that before they sent you here?!”), but LaGravenese and Weiss see past their high concept, to the dramatic opportunities it offers. Throwing all these ‘wackos” into the same house and letting them bang off each other, drinking and snipping, makes for good comedy. But it also makes for good drama, since big, stressful holiday gatherings are the ideal moments for familial dysfunction to manifest itself.

So there are laughs to be found in the nastiness of Lloyd’s domineering mother (played to sneering perfection by Mary Poppins’ Glynis Johns), whose gift of boxer shorts to her grandson is accompanied by a stern, “I bought you the husky size, John. You mustn’t let your weight become a problem,” and who reads the card of her single, cheap gift from his family with acid bitterness (“Thank you, Connie and Gary and Mary and John”). But they also deftly dramatize how this woman manipulates her son and daughter-in-low, how she pokes and prods them to set them off against each other rather than her.

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And her scheming works – until it doesn’t. There’s an all-out family meltdown during the unwrapping of the presents, and director Demme masterfully, unexpectedly shifts gears; at first the insults are played for laughs, and then the fights turn serious, with honest drama and anger bubbling up to the surface. Davis (an Oscar nominee two years earlier, for her brittle and brilliant turn in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives) is as broken and anguished as in any of her period dramas, rendering Caroline’s frustrations achingly real. Spacey responds with an acting aria that goes from even-voiced, barely-contained anger to outright physical rage (he thrashes the Christmas tree with a fireplace poker to quiet the family), and all points in between; the variety of notes he’s playing hint at the kind of talent he was exploding into (his breakout roles in The Usual Suspects and Seven would follow the next year). And then he brings the whole scene back to comedy with his explosively funny read of one of the script’s best line: “You know what, mom? You know what I’m gonna get you next Christmas? A big wooden cross. So every time you feel unappreciated for all your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it.”

Occasionally, during this long scene, Demme will cut away to Leary – who smokes and watches, present in the scene, but content to play the back. The director and star had some history, by this point; Demme had not only directed Leary in those MTV spots, but the cable special of his No Cure for Cancer special and Demme’s first feature Who’s the Man?. What he’s doing here is similar to what Barry Levinson did to Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam: keeping his established persona intact, but building it into a strong script, and surrounding him with terrific character actors (not just Spacey, Davis, Baranski, and Johns, but Bob Ridgley, Raymond J. Barry, and a young-ish J.K. Simmons as “Lt. Siskel.”).

So it’s not just a Denis Leary vehicle. It’s a real movie, with drama and grace and intelligence (and slapstick and drunk Santa gags and crude laughs). Years later, just before Demme’s death, he and LaGravenese would collaborate again – on the documentary miniseries A Decade Under the Influence, which looked at the studio pictures of the ‘70s “New Hollywood” movement. Their affection for that period goes a long way towards explaining why The Ref works; like those films, it wasn’t afraid of targeting an adult audience, and keeping them off-balance with shifting tones and approaches. Like Die Hard or even It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s set during Christmas, but it’s not really a “Christmas movie.” It’s a worth taking out for a spin this time of year, though. It beats the hell out of The Santa Clause.

The Ref is streaming on Netflix.