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It's Christmas Eve and Gus, a cat burglar making the final heist of his career, trips the alarm system in a suburban home, forcing him... Read More
It's Christmas Eve and Gus, a cat burglar making the final heist of his career, trips the alarm system in a suburban home, forcing him to take the occupants hostage. Little does he know his Christmas is the one that's going to be ruined as he finds himself caught between a relentlessly bickering husband and wife and their fully dysfunctional family. As Gus soon discovers, there is no cure for rancor. Minimize
18 Reviews from Epinions.com
Dec 26, 2002
"Sex And Drugs And Women Being Set On Fire!": The Ref (Spawn of Scrooge W/O)
Pros: Spacey, Davis, Leary; the drunken Santa, St. Lucia, and their brethren
Cons: Nobody gets impaled on a Christmas tree
The Bottom Line:
For true holiday dis-cheer and anti-merriment, look no further than Demme's defiant Christmas masterpiece.
[This is my entry in the "Spawn of Scrooge" write-off, which pops my cherry as a write-off host. Being a big fan of Ouroboros, and relishing every opportunity to quote myself, I'll let this bit from my profile page explain the write-off:
"As an antidote to end-of-the-year cheeriness and treacle the participant shall review any film [etc.] in which Christmas takes a royal beating. I don't care if the whole thing has a happy ending, as long as sometime, somehow, somewhere during the course of the proceedings, the Christmas spirit is taken down a few notches, raked over the coals, and/or left for dead."
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you this: the write-off was conceived as an excuse to let me watch (and review) "The Ref" again. So here are the fruits (or, fruit cakes) of my labours ]
"The Ref" opens with an idyllic shot, framed by decorated holly, of the majestically lit town square of Baybrook, Connecticut. It is the peak of the Christmas season, and the square is alive with throngs of people. As the camera leads the viewer slowly through the crowds, it sees a group of people looking at a traditional manger scene, young children singing carols, and townsfolk wishing each other a merry time. Armies of kids peer into a store's window, gaping in awe at the model trains (a reference to "A Christmas Story" perhaps?), and a Salvation Army bell ringer smiles brightly as passersby toss coins into his donation pot.
From the donation pot, the camera slowly angles upwards, to the office above the Village Bookstore. We see a sign on the second story window that says "Dr. Wong, Marriage Counselor". Oh no! Could such strife really exist in this yuletide utopia? Surely you jest. The setting changes. We are now inside Dr. Wong's office, where he is in session with Lloyd and Caroline Chasseur. After a brief introduction, we hear from Caroline:
"I had this dream... I'm in this restaurant, and the waiter brings me my entree. It was a salad. It was Lloyd's head on a plate of spinach with his penis sticking out of his ear. And I said, 'I didn't order this.' And the waiter said, 'Oh you must try it, it's a delicacy. But don't eat the penis, it's just garnish.'"
Ka-Boom! (That's the sound of utopia shattering)
Meanwhile, somewhere across town, a cat burglar is breaking into one of Baybrook's more stately mansions. He cracks the complex security system, locates the safe, picks the lock, and is in the process of emptying out its contents, when a luscious jeweled ring catches his eye. But alas, the ring is a decoy, the trigger for a high-tech security system that first -- in a gleeful bit of irony -- robs the burglar of his dignity by spraying him with cat piss. Would you believe that this is a film warped enough to use feline urine as a running gag? Ah, but we're just getting started.
These two stories converge when Gus, the stained burglar, meets Caroline, she of the matrimonial nightmares, in a convenience store. She is there to pick up some last-minute ingredients for dinner, as her in-laws will arrive in a couple of hours. He is there looking for a hostage and a hideout. A gun to the back, a trip to the Chasseur's car, and we're off and running.
As an opening salvo, I'd like to start my discussion of the film's actors with this little revelation: Kevin Spacey used to be cool. Before his super-sincere and ultra-bland performances in such DOA vehicles as "Pay it Forward" and "K-Pax", the Spaceman tested his cojones as the serial killer in "Se7en", the vitriolic movie producer in "Swimming With Sharks", and the put-upon husband in "The Ref". Lloyd Chasseur (it's "18th Century French Huguenot," as Lloyd and his son Jesse insist on informing anyone who didn't ask) has no cojones himself, but Spacey is certainly balls-to-the-wall in bringing the beaten little man to life.
Judy Davis doesn't work as much as her talents would merit. I've only seen her on film but a couple of times, and felt exhilarated with every turn. In "Barton Fink" she played the ghost-writing secretary of a Faulkner-esque screenwriter (ironic spoiler alert: while Spacey once played a guy who put a head in a box, Davis once played the head in the box). And as Caroline in "The Ref" she is the very-damaged wife of an ineffectual husband, who is just trying to get through one more Christmas with her in-laws. Spacey and Davis have great chemistry together. They play characters that are too distracted by their own fears and phobias and anger to realize that each is the perfect person for the other. And their verbal wars are just delicious, brought to life through impeccable timing and lots of blood and spit.
Denis Leary, as Gus, doesn't deviate too far from his on-the-comedy-club-stage persona (appropriately enough, as director Ted Demme also shot Leary's two comedy specials, "No Cure for Cancer" and "Lock 'N' Load"). But it works so perfectly here, he doesn't really have to. He's the one caught in the middle, trying to keep his hostage situation under control, when Lloyd and Caroline have at each other (thus the film's title). Watching Leary do a slow burn is one of the film's truest joys, his frustration and ever-growing ire a real treat to behold.
But Gus isn't a one-note character, and Leary, to his credit, doesn't play him as such. If you look closely, the details of a well-rounded person are there. Gus shows, at different points, that he is well-versed in the art of Chagall and has a working understanding of Freudian dream theory. So we know that the man is not just your average dumb thief. To top it all off, he has some fine scenes with young Jesse Chasseur (Robert J. Steinmiller Jr., a Wil Wheaton look- and act-alike) that serve as islands of sincere drama and thoughtfulness in an ocean of vitriolic holiday satire.
The supporting cast, playing what on first glance appear to be broad types, also manage to find the dark underbelly in their roles. Special mention must be given to Christine Baranski, as Lloyd's deliciously two-faced sister-in-law. She shines bright as a domineering and ultra-conservative mother on the verge of a meltdown. Also, Glynis Johns is in fine form essaying the archetypal mother-in-law from Hell.
All this is held together nicely by the workmanlike camera (save that slithering opening shot) of director Demme. The man in charge of two of my favourite snow-drenched dysfunctional family comedies (there's a soft spot in my heart for "Beautiful Girls"), Demme died in 2002 from cocaine-induced heart failure while playing in a charity basketball game. His last film, "Blow", was about the snorting of cocaine. Ironically, it met with a snort of derision from me. That being said, on the strength of "The Ref" alone, I'll miss Ted and his work.
The film's real strength, however, is its wickedly funny and acerbic script. Sure, the plot doesn't move forward with much momentum, but seeing as this is a story set over one miserable night, it doesn't have to. And yes, characters learn and characters grow, but that doesn't take anything away from the smart dialogue. "How can we both be in the marriage, and I'm miserable and you're content?" asks Caroline at one point, with utmost sincerity. "Luck?" comes Lloyd's bitchy reply. Zing! Leary, as would be expected, is particularly adept at tossing off these juicy one-liners. "What are we, girlfriends here?" he sarcastically asks Caroline, with all the gusto of a comic torching a heckler, as she starts to tell him of their failed restaurant. Later, he observes quite rightly, "You know what this family needs? A mute." Okay, so mostly these are easy jokes of the setup-punchline variety, but they work so well I don't mind at all.
Adapted from a story by Marie Weiss (who has no other big-screen credits), I suppose most of the praise for the script should go to screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. LaGravenese's career, to me, is a huge disappointment. He penned two of my favourite screenplays (he also wrote "The Fisher King", which is an equally adept movie), and then so much garbage they'd need an extra barge just to tug it out to sea.
One final note on the participants: "The Ref" was produced by, get this, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. The two men made eleven films together, starting with "Flashdance" and ending with "The Rock", the latter released after Simpson died of an overdose in 1996 (he was found on the toilet, Elvis-style). "The Ref" has none of the explosions or sweat or machismo of their other efforts. I'm not sure why I'm mentioning this, really. I guess I just found it odd.
Okay, enough about the movie proper. I know you're all chomping at the bit to find out just how "The Ref" makes mince meat out of Christmas (be forewarned: there are some slight spoilers in the following. Nothing major, mind you, but I thought I'd offer a warning anyway).
Things start out subtly enough. In the scene at the market, just before Caroline's abduction, a Scrooge-like customer can be overheard barking at the sales clerk for having the nerve to run out of eggnog on Christmas Eve. Okay, a good start.
Next, we have a sweet little exchange in the car, between Connie (Baranski) and her daughter Mary (played by Ellie Raab). A story about Gus' failed burglary has just been heard on the car's radio, and Mary, with sweet cynicism, asks, "Maybe they'll catch him, then let him go in the Spirit of Christmas?" Her mother replies (Baranski is in full-on manic glee mode), "That's not the spirit of Christmas. The Spirit of Christmas is either you're good, or you're punished and you burn in hell." Which is, to me, the film's thesis statement.
A couple of scenes later, we see a bunch of cops, sitting around the TV, watching "It's a Wonderful Life". Lt. Huff, the nominal Chief of Police, comes in with a surveillance tape showing the only footage of the burglar's face. The boys watch the tape, feel like they've got the face committed to memory, and then turn back to the film. Alas, they are so ignorant they inadvertently tape over the one piece of evidence with Capra's Christmas staple. I find that to be so refreshing: "It's a Wonderful Life" used to ruin the holiday, instead of reinforcing it. Plus, scenes of bumbling cops are always fun.
Further on down the road, two of Christmas' most visible icons take a beating. Literally. Lloyd, in a fit of frustration, goes medieval on the Christmas tree with a fireplace poker. It's beautiful to watch, this moment, as ornaments and pine needles fly everywhere. Later, Gus, during a particularly tense moment in the plot, actually punches Kris Kringle in the face. "Great, I just beat up Santa Claus," he blithely notes.
These are all well and good, but the film really shows its true colours in two riotous sequences. The first involves the aforementioned Santa Claus. His name is George, and it is his own, much abhorred, tradition to go door-to-door on Christmas Eve, handing out homemade fruitcakes. Well, all goes well at first. He is merely annoying when he shows up at the Chasseur house. Cut to his next appearance, when he's showing a bit of frustration himself, having to endure the love and affection of the town children and all. In one of his last appearances, being a bit tipsy from all the free wine he's had during the evening, George (as Santa) lets the kids have it:
"Look," he says, "Santa can't drink any more milk tonight. Santa has lactose intolerance; it gives him horrible gas pains. You want Santa farting down everyone's chimney?"
At this moment, I stand and cheer. Not that it needs it, but the scene is given a rousing epilogue, when, after George is kicked out of the house, he pisses on a bush in the front yard. Classy.
The second monumental set piece involves Caroline's dinner. She's famous -- or is that infamous? -- for her themed dinners, and this year is no exception. She's decided to serve a traditional Scandinavian Christmas Feast, in honour of Saint Lucia, the patron saint of light. Lucia lived in the fourth century AD, and was said to have spurned marriage in favour of a virgin life. An angry suitor reported her to the authorities, whose first punishment, sending her to the brothels, was foiled when Lucia couldn't be moved, and whose second punishment, death by fire, was foiled when Lucia wouldn't burn. Eventually, she was stabbed to death (gosh, James Bond is easier to kill than this babe).
Caroline tells a version of this story (which prompts the quotation from Connie that I've used as my review title), and then, to honour the Saint, has her guests where crowns of candles. The perplexed looks on their snobby faces are all I need to denote this scene a classic. But in a way, I feel like the film pulls its punches. It could have been a lot more malicious. Couldn't a spark have fallen from one of the candles onto, say, Connie's head, causing her chemically-treated 'do to erupt in flames? Is that not too much to ask?
But alas, it is not meant to be. Everyone emerges from this catastrophic Christmas a little worse for wear, but with no real scars or wounds. Pity. Despite the general feeling of cheer and warmth that engulfs "The Ref's" denouement, I can heartily recommend it as a remedy for all the saccharine emotions we're force fed this time of year. It turns out to be a warm cider of a film, true, but it's a warm cider that's gently laced with arsenic.
[Thanks to all who participated. The scrooglings who took a stab (pun intended) at knocking Christmas down a few pegs are: artbyjude * BeastieGirl * beckytcy * BigJack * darkofnight * dedemw * d_fienberg * ingysdayoff * JackSommersby * Kidnykid * lemon_lime * lisaffire * mfunk75 (host) * millinocket * panguitch * pmills1210 * Simply_Crispy * skbreese * st_patrick * Vormancian * weirdo_87 * Wokelstein. Bah-Humbug to you all.]
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