The Ref

  • Title:  The Ref
  • Director:  Ted Demme
  • Date:  1994
  • Studio:  Touchstone
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • Cast:  Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, Christine Barenski
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Great, I hijack my f…ing parents!” — Gus (Leary)

“From now on the only person who gets to yell is me, Why? Because I have a gun, OK? People with guns can do whatever they want. Married people without guns, for instance, you — Do not get to YELL! Why? No guns! No guns, no yelling.” — Gus

“Eat, don’t annoy me, it’s Christmas.”  — Connie

“I’m in hell. Connecticut is the fifth ring of hell!”  — Gus

The Ref opens with a series of shots of Christmas in a Connecticut suburb. Everything looks perfect, there’s even snow and children looking into shop window displays. But then we meet Caroline and Lloyd Cheshire, who are seeing a marriage counselor. Their squabbling and put downs of each other are so bad they annoy their marriage counselor. We also see a cat burglar who is trying to break into a safe in one of the huge homes in the small town/suburb. The break-in goes wrong — first he’s sprayed with cat urine, then he sets off the alarm, and the cops are alerted.

Gus, as we later learn, is stranded without an getaway car, since his partner was frightened by the alarms and ran off, so he takes a woman hostage in a convenience store, looking for a ride. He, and the Cheshires never expected what would result.

Like all good screwball comedies, from a simple plot – a criminal trying to escape, events just snowball and the film is extremely funny. Most of the film takes place in the Cheshires’ house, with a few cutaways to the incompetent police manhunt for the criminal. (For example, the police chief, who is competent, finds a surveillance videotape of Gus from the robbery. He shows it to his men once, but is interrupted by a phone call. When he returns, they’ve recorded a James Stewart movie over the surveillance footage.) The Cheshires, with their bickering, arguing, and put downs, drive Gus nuts. When their extended family arrive for Christmas dinner – the family politics get even worse. Yet, in the midst of the chaos – Gus’ presence allows everyone to get things off their chest. When Lloyd, who seems to be the calmest one in the group, finally explodes – it’s great. And the honesty, not to mention Gus’ prodding, might have, oddly enough, saved their marriage. One can see Caroline and Gus giving up their “safe and comfortable” life, moving to California, and opening another restaurant (closing their restaurant several years earlier had started a series of events that was now bringing them to brink of divorce). Meanwhile, their son, a budding criminal himself, may have been scared straight by Gus – who honestly tells him he doesn’t want that type of  life.

The film is laugh out loud funny. The characters seem very real, if a little over the top. The sarcastic dialogue is underscored by the sarcastic and ironic nature of the entire film:  this little Connecticut suburb may look perfect, but everyone is hiding secrets, everyone is nasty and mean, and no one treats anyone else with any respect whatsoever. There is a lot of swearing and bad language, and some adult concepts as well. However, the film is brilliant. Denis Leary is incredibly funny, and brings out the best of everyone around him. I have seen The Ref more than twice, usually with many years between seeing it, and every time the film surprises me with it’s fresh humor. Also, The Ref has some heart to it, that’s extremely unexpected. Caroline and Lloyd are already in marriage counseling – yet Gus, as raw as he may be, is a better marriage counselor for the couple than Dr. Wong, the counselor they see at the beginning of the film. Gus also manages to get everyone in the family to honestly confront the issues they have with each other, rather than quietly ignoring them and pretending to be nice. This truly is a brilliant comedy!

Recommendation:  See it! (Not for young children)
Rating:  4 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Roberta