The Ref (1994): Lookback/Review

When Denis Leary holds a hostile family hostage over the holidays, he finds out that there's no cure for Christmas.

Richard LaGravenese, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, has had a rich and varied film career of unusually high quality. His adaptations of such moving literary accomplishments as The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer and Beloved suggests a creative force with a profoundly compassionate understanding of the human heart in crisis. Therefore, one might expect a certain sort of product were he to team up with his sister-in-law Marie Weiss to pen a piece about family values especially for Christmas. “Both Marie and I are Italian Catholics who married into Jewish families,” LaGravenese said to the New York Times in a contemporary interview, “so we do have those big holiday dinners.” This winking nod to the holidays’ traditional family turmoil hardly begins to cover the breadth of the alienation and emotional violence in the script he and Weiss provided Ted Demme for the culty 1994 black comedy The Ref.

For Demme’s part, the film seems to serve primarily as a vehicle for the star of his 1992 comedy concert hit No Cure for Cancer, Denis Leary. No Cure for Cancer may not be as elaborately artful as uncle Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (a recording of a Spalding Gray performance), but Leary’s now-infamously incendiary humor blazes out of the screen as he rants, raves and is gripped by something like glossolalia as he rails against all that’s wrong with our mediocre and overstimulated American culture. His vision of a world in which we ought to rove around the country in the Partridge Family bus massacring unworthy rock stars, while nude men eat raw red meat in restaurants and piss freely in place to mark their territory and we all smoke a pack a minute out of multiple tracheotomies, earned him a reputation as a formidable force of humor and horror. None of this quite adds up to Christmas cheer, but in its way, No Cure is totally useful preparatory viewing for The Ref.

We open on a Connecticut suburb in the state of monomaniacal Christmas spirit that is epidemic to towns small enough to preserve their naïvete and rich enough to enjoy that most materialistic time of year. Darkening the atmosphere is a void where some faithless hood has stolen the baby Jesus from the local church’s nativity scene – but mostly folks can afford to pay it no mind, as they’re safely insulated by their own wealth and too occupied with their obsessive hatred of one another that petty larceny just doesn’t stack up to the pleasures of abuse and deprivation. Various arms of the local law revel in their battle for supremacy, a family of bourgeoisie pigs beats a path to the door of relatives they openly despise, said relatives perform the ritual of marriage counseling as an opportunity to air their bilious secrets to one another, their precociously criminal child dominates his military academy teachers and a lone cat burglar finds himself stranded when his bumbling booze-soaked assistant leaves him at the scene of a botched job. No one in the world of The Ref likes each other. Not even a little bit.

Kevin Spacey plays Lloyd, the cuckolded head of the Chasseur household, who holds his adulterous wife Caroline (Judy Davis) hostage in a divorceless marriage as the only form of punishment still available to him. Ice queen Caroline (a role perfectly designed for Davis) reserves all of the limited passion she can muster for a dilettantish obsession with troubling Scandinavian cuisine (she “takes pictures of lutefisk to prove the nothingness of being,” complains Spacey) and equally sadomasochistic proto-feminist religious mythology and she asks their floundering marriage counselor: does her affair even count if she felt nothing at all? “I think we need a ruling on this,” is Spacey’s sporting assessment of the situation and that is exactly what they’ll get.

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Meanwhile, professional thief Gus (Leary, inevitably) is trying and failing to complete his last big score, foiled in a jewel heist by a trap composed of a miniature cat piss hose and an angry rottweiler named Cannibal. He happens upon the unhappy Chasseurs on their way home from humiliating their witless counselor and no sooner has he hijacked the vulnerable-looking yuppies than he discovers he’s made a huge mistake; his hostages hate each other much, much more than they fear a bullet in the head. 

At the luxurious Chassuer homestead, Gus gets an earful about their financial woes, all of which seem to originate with mama’s boy Lloyd, who has fallen back on running his mother’s antique store, renting her home and paying off a maternal loan with 18% interest. The Chasseurs are refugees from a failed attempt to make it big in New York City and their sulky sniping at one another is beneath reproach for a desperado like Gus, who just wants to get out of the game. As an outlaw, Gus has developed a real appreciation for not just the finer things, but the standard things; a modicum of legitimate money, family, a home and the couple’s slow murder of one another is just as bad as their shocking disinterest in things like the authentic but unloved Chagall hanging in the stairwell. As much as he’d like to stay out of it, Gus is going to survive the experience only if he can figure out how to therapize the two into working together. The session gets underway with Leary forcing the spousal abusers to address the accusations they sling at one another, not just with their abject wrath, but unadulterated honesty, Leary’s comedic trademark. His scorched earth technique for doing away with vainglorious inhibitions actually seems to work, as the couple come closer in a scene of bungee cord bondage, which is unfortunately interrupted when their son comes home from school.

Adolescent Jesse (Robert J. Steinmiller, Jr.) is scarcely more innocent than his parents, having stolen the holy ceramic infant from the town’s nativity scene out of malice and extorting a teacher at the academy with a series of spy photos he describes as “like Maplethorpe, but a little more personal.” The latter project was undertaken with the intention of saving up to run away from home, so it might not be too late for the young man after all. 

Unfortunately, teen terror Jesse Chasseur is not to be their only visitor. Gus will have to transition from the couple’s perversely effective interrogator to their pretend marriage counselor when Lloyd’s family arrives. Sister Connie (hilarious TV stalwart Christine Baranski) leads her horrific half of the family with her own mega-catholic brand of holiday justice: “The Christmas spirit is either you’re good, or you’re punished and you burn in hell.” Her castrated husband and their brood form the court of the Chasseur family matriarch Rose (Glynis Johns, who has appeared in everything from the classic Mary Poppins to the abhorrent African ET-ripoff Nukie), who holds everyone’s fate by the purse strings. Gus’ confrontation with the extended clan comes in the form of a spectacular trial by fire for his pupils Lloyd and Caroline’s burgeoning humanity as, crowned at Caroline’s behest with spectacular flaming wreaths from an obscure religious tradition, they turn their newfound honesty on their guests.

Gus carries with him the air of a Dickensian Christmas ghost; he has no explicit history, nowhere in particular to go but out of the life and nothing more special than the ability to compel people into catharsis with his righteous verbal onslaught. He arrives as an incarnation of Black Peter, ready to beat and bag little boys who have been naughty throughout the year. With the machine gun cadence of Lauren Bacall and the unflinching honesty of a Louis CK or a Lenny Bruce, Leary shines his blistering spotlight on every aspect of apathy and obsequiousness he can see in his surroundings. Leary’s early ’90s comedy may not date that well for a generation of viewers who grew up with the likes of South Park as a kind of consumer advocate for truthfulness, but what is special about Denis Leary is that he is not a cynic. A cynic is inured. A cynic finds corruption funny or simply fails to notice. Leary’s hard-hitting, chain-smoking, obscene assaults on empty sentimentality may signify cynicism superficially, but only someone deeply, sincerely sensitive could possibly be so angry.

By the end of the evening, Gus and the Chasseurs have formed a force to be reckoned with. Things work out in the end for some, but certainly not all, characters, with varying degrees of certainty. Before they’re out of the woods, though, Gus and the Chasseurs have to answer to Santa Claus. The neighborhood Saint Nick has spent all day in living rooms full of snot-nosed kids and patronizing parents, his lactose intolerant system violated repeatedly by milk and cookies, anesthetizing himself with champagne until his rage finds the focus of the stuck-up Chasseurs who have refused to respond in kind to his wife’s gifted fruitcakes year after year. The inebriated neighbor pits his Kringle against Gus’ Krampus and loses instantly; “Great, I just beat up Santa Claus,” he utters sourly, though it feels like he’s symbolically scored one for us all against the enormous, psychological pressure of hosting the holiday spirit.

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