THE REF opens with shots of a small New England town that could only exist in the movies--IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, let's say. The streets are dusted with perfectly white show, the shop windows filled with tasteful Christmas decorations, the houses all beautifully cared for, their windows
spilling warmth onto the meticulously clean streets. Into this fairy-tale setting step Caroline and Lloyd (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey), an upper middle-class couple so biliously disenchanted with one another that it's a wonder their words don't poison all life within hearing distance. If THE REF
lived up to its early scenes, it would be a very funny movie indeed, but it soon sinks into a blandly commercial rut that slowly drains away what bitter energy it has.
Caroline and Lloyd are on their way home to get ready for another awful holiday when they're kidnapped by escaped felon Gus (Denis Leary), a smart-talking criminal who's in town to pull off a big heist and needs somewhere to hide out until his buddy can get him out of town. He's soon deeply
sorry he picked Caroline and Lloyd's place. Not only does their constant bickering drive him mad ("I've kidnapped my fucking parents," he moans after only a few minutes of their endless sniping), but they have a slew of relatives on the way for Christmas dinner.
Their incorrigible son Jessie (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr.) is on his way home from military school, where he's been blackmailing his teachers. Lloyd's snobbish mother, Rose (Glynis Johns), and her other son's family are driving in from Boston. In a comic twist on THE DESPERATE HOURS, Lloyd and
Caroline must pretend that everything's fine, unconvincingly introducing Gus as their marriage counselor, Dr. Woo, and proceeding with the singularly unmerry festivities. Meanwhile, unknown to the hostage family, the local police are mounting a manhunt for Gus.
Dinner is awful. Caroline, a famously bad cook, serves up a dreadful Swedish feast and insists everyone wear ridiculous traditional wreaths studded with candles on their heads. The gift-giving is no better. Everyone hates what he or she gets--sister-in-law Connie (Christine Baraski) gives a
particularly acid reading to the word "slippersocks" when she unwraps her present--and no-one makes any secret of it. Amidst this display of greed and selfishness, Gus's innate, if rough-hewn, decency begins to rub off on Caroline, Lloyd, and even the loathsome Jessie. They realize they really do
love one another, and decide to help Gus escape. Caroline and Lloyd handle the family (the film's best line, from Lloyd to one of his nieces, may be, "Mary, gag your grandma") while Jessie leads Gus to a waiting boat, and watches as he takes off into the darkness.
Though released by Buena Vista, THE REF is not the kind of holiday entertainment one expects from the Walt Disney company. It's cynical, mean-spirited and, at least at first, viciously funny; it's easy to see why the company got cold feet about releasing the movie at Christmas, instead holding
it until the middle of March. The script, by Marie Weiss and Richard LaGravenese (THE FISHER KING), is at its best before it gets to the lessons. Unfortunately, THE REF can't sustain its defiantly misanthropic tone, and soon slips into the realm of the heartwarming and sentimental.
THE REF's greatest strength is casting. Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey bring a truly nasty edge to Lloyd and Caroline's bitter verbal sparring. They don't sound like a couple fighting cute; they sound like people who know words can be as sharp as razors and are unhappy enough to slice away at one
another until the blood flows. Glynis Johns is appropriately insufferable as Lloyd's mother, and Christine Baraski's Connie is a small miracle of self-centered disdain. Excoriating comedian Denis Leary, however, is a little disappointing as Gus. It appears that in order to make his secret
respectability believable, he was asked to tone down the caustic, chain-smoking, bile-spewing persona he's developed in his stand-up work, and a kinder, gentler Leary undermines the irony of a "bad" guy teaching the "good" guys how to behave like civilized human beings. By the time he makes his
escape from suburban hell, one expects young Jessie to call out, "Come back, Gus."
Director Ted Demme (WHO'S THE MAN?), the nephew of director Jonathan Demme, comes from MTV (he directed Leary's MTV promos and comedy special and co-created "Yo! MTV Raps"), but doesn't succumb to the usual mannerisms of video directors. Far from being flashy, THE REF aspires successfully to
smooth, mainstream conventionality, the better to set off its curdled tone. The unfortunate title, which suggests a sports movie, was intended to suggest that Gus is the referee who steps into Lloyd and Caroline's marital skirmishes and makes all the right calls. (Profanity, violence.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: R
- Review: THE REF opens with shots of a small New England town that could only exist in the movies--IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, let's say. The streets are dusted with perfectly white show, the shop windows filled with tasteful Christmas decorations, the houses all beauti… (more)