Directed by Ted Demme
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss, from a story by Marie Weiss
Starring Dennis Leary, Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey, Christine Baransky, Glynis Johns.
Ah, Christmas. A time for joy and heartwarming movies about families getting together. But read any advice column this time of year and you'll see that it's also a time of drama, bad feelings, spite, and malice. And The Ref takes the dark side of Christmas and turns it into a sharp little black comedy.
Gus (Dennis Leary) is a burglar, who is ditched by his getaway man as he pulls off a job on Christmas Eve, forcing him to improvise. He finds Caroline Chasseur (Judy Davis) and forces her and her husband Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) to take him to their home while the police search for him. Caroline and Lloyd's marriage is, to say the least, in trouble -- neither can say anything without attacking the other. Gus is forced to deal with him until he works out a plan, but soon Lloyd's family arrives, forcing everyone to pretend that things are normal. Gus soon discovers that the only way he's going to be able to escape the police is to solve the problems of Connecticut's most dysfunctional family.
The movie has a lot going for it: a very funny script and some very talented performers. Though the names of Leary and Spacey are well known today, they were just becoming noticeable in films at the time. Leary was known primarily as a comedian and Spacey was just reaching stardom. Judy Davis was even then one of the most well-regarded actresses in film, even if she has rarely had roles worthy of her talents. Christine Baranski was a year away from her breakthrough role in Cybil.
Even though today we'd look at the cast list and nod at how good they must have been, the movie was not a hit, and barely made back its budget. Leary has blamed the marketing, and the time was certainly not right for black comedy with a Christmas theme, especially one coming from Touchstone/Disney. And the name of the film was probably not a help; while The Ref makes a lot of sense in the context of the film, it's a bit opaque and hard for audiences to remember.
Director Ted Demme career didn't seem badly affected by the so-so box office, as he made several more movies with top level casts. His last film was Blow starring Johnny Depp as the man who made cocaine mainstream in the 70s. That's ironic, since Demme died the next year of a heart attack induced by cocaine in his system.
This is not a warmhearted Christmas movie, but it's still a film that gets a lot of laughs about the dark sides of the holiday.