It's Christmas Eve and in an attempt to sustain their failing marriage, Lloyd (Kevin Spacey) and Caroline (Judy Davis) Chasseur are seeing a counsellor, though it's not going too well. The more he invites them to open up about their feelings, the further it becomes clear that they cannot stand one another, and in spite of the therapist's best efforts every time he tells them to be honest, the conversation erupts into a heated argument. Meanwhile, across this well to do area of Connecticut a burglar, Gus (Denis Leary) is helping himself to the safe of a local celebrity, but things are not going well for him either...
The Ref was probably the best film directed by Ted Demme, who died while still in his thirties thanks to a bad reaction to cocaine; the nephew of director Jonathan Demme, he had been very promising in some opinions, but his death prevented him from creating the minor classic he might have been capable of. However, there were many impressed by his Christmas movie and if it was never going to usurp one of the more beloved festive films, at least it took an alternative tack to the more traditional cosy and twinkly Yuletide entertainment. That was down to the mood here being nothing short of abrasive.
'Tis the season to really get on someone's nerves, or so it appeared here, as Gus negotiates various burglar alarms to steal a bunch of jewels, but when he emerges into the snowy evening he is furious to find his partner in crime Murray (Richard Bright) has taken fright and left him in the lurch. Improvising, Gus grabs Caroline from a convenience store and forces her into her car, where the alarmed Lloyd drives them back to the Chasseur residence. But the premise of the humour is these hostages will send Gus to distraction with their constant bickering and blaming, which can get wearing when it's pretty much all the story is, but does throw up some nicely witty lines in the process.
All of them caustic and insultiing, making this one of the sweariest Christmas movies ever made, and the cast set about that dialogue (from the script by Richard LaGravenese and Marie Weiss) with enthusiasm which loads even the less sharp lines with venom. It was no surprise that old Demme cohort Leary would take to this like a duck to water, his role seemed to have been created for him and at times he came across as falling back on improvisation so he'd sound more like his stand-up act, but seasoned thesps Davis and Spacey were equally keen to take this by the scruff of the neck and shake it until there was nothing left to give. Well, except an ending which finally gave in to the season of goodwill and allowed some peace to descend on the antagonistic characters.
It's not only Lloyd and Caroline who are in the house, as they are expecting family to arrive for dinner, including his mother Glynis Johns, not a sweet old lady but a controlling harridan who has her own son in debt to her in exchange for running her antique shop. The resentment runs deep here, and the presence of Gus who is constantly telling them to shut up and stop arguing acts as a catalyst to bring out the worst in everybody. This was a production from Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, best known for their big, dumb action movies so a change of pace if you didn't see the emotional pyrotechnics as an equivalent to things getting blown up real good in their more familiar fare. Nevertheless, the fireworks set off here rocked the boat just as much as those explosions, with nobody really admirable except those who managed to get through the ordeal in a mood of catharsis. If you know the film featured Leary punching out a drunken Santa, then you'd have some idea of the laughs they were seeking. Music by David A. Stewart.